Unpack Your Adjectives

In March of 1974, the Schoolhouse Rock episode “Unpack Your Adjectives” aired for the first time. Schoolhouse Rock originally ran from 1973 to 1984. I saw all the episodes many times, and I can still sing most of the songs. The adjective song helped children understand how to verbally describe what things are like instead of just what they are. Ironically, in the video there is an encounter with a bear. A hairy bear. A scary bear. One big, ugly bear….

Last fall I ran into a bear. We were in the Grand Tetons hiking along the edge of a beautiful lake when we rounded a corner and were face-to-face with a large black bear. In that moment it mattered very much what adjectives described the bear. Was she angry or calm? Was she dangerous or benign? As it happened, she was calm and benign, and we were able to let her pass us by without incident. Unlike the Schoolhouse Rock video, she was not scary or ugly (though she was very hairy.)

When I was young, I wanted to be an engineer, and I wanted to run Kimray like my granddad and dad did. I thought of those things as “who” I wanted to become, but “engineer” is a noun that describes what someone does, not who they are. Being a machinist or a truck driver or a waiter or a dentist are things people do. They are not who someone is.

To talk about who we are, we need to think in terms of adjectives. I don’t remember thinking about who I would be as an engineer. Would I be an ethical engineer or a corrupt one? Would I be a compassionate leader or a selfish one? Would I be a loyal co-worker or a subversive team member? Wanting to be an engineer was a fine thing to aspire to, but I should have been more focused on the adjectives that would describe me, whatever I ended up “doing.”

Because of COVID-19, our lives have been turned upside down. Current circumstances have rendered most of our plans and usual methods worthless. It seems like very little is in our control, and that is a very scary place to be. It is made even more so if what we do is who we think we are. When I was removed from my position at Kimray eight years ago, I was lost. The leader of Kimray was who I was, not just what I did. Losing that title and that identity was devastating to me. However, it forced me to discover who I really was. Without a job, or a title, or influence, or connections—who was I?

What surfaced were the adjectives I wanted to be true about my authentic self…things that can be true about me regardless of what I am doing…things that transcend jobs and titles and positions…things that I can always continue to improve on and areas where I can grow. What I learned the hard way was to base my identity on my adjectives, not my current activities. Interestingly, many of these adjectives are character qualities. Humble, grateful, forgiving, compassionate, loyal—these are a few of the things I want to be true about me, regardless of what I find myself doing.

As this current crisis unfolds, we will have many opportunities to rethink our identities. Many people will find themselves transitioning to new or different jobs. Many of the things we have done in the past might be lost or significantly changed. Organizations and communities that we have been a part of may cease to exist or continue in a very different way. If we see ourselves as what we do, this is going to be very disorienting. However, if we unpack our adjectives and focus on the characteristics that make us who we are, we can be confident in our identity regardless of the circumstances.

As leaders, our job is to help people see themselves as who they are, not what they do. This has to start with our own identity being rooted in our adjectives rather than our roles. Then we can acknowledge the characteristics we see in those we serve and recognize them for those things. Instead of just telling someone they did a good job, we can let them know we appreciate their creativity or determination. Instead of just thanking people for what they did, we can thank them for how they did it. We can help everyone see their adjectives (character) as what makes them who they are, not the job they do or title they hold.

Crisis does create a lot of problems (that we need to solve), but it also exposes a lot of opportunities (that we need to seize.) One of these opportunities is the chance to center our identity in things we carry with us rather than in things that can be taken away. Realizing our “what” can change suddenly while our “who” endures, is a blessing within the difficulties we are currently experiencing. Unpack your adjectives, and help those you serve unpack theirs. It is something you can do for the people you have been called to serve, and it is The Kimray Way.