If I had been born a boy, Mum says my name would have been Stirling. And although “Stirling Fairfax” (coincidentally now my youngest nephew’s name) certainly has an impressive ring to it, I reckon my parents should have called me Jack instead.
Jack—Jack of all trades, that’s me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a diverse array of interests and skills, especially “creative” ones: painting, script-writing, film, music, running, psychology, languages . . . even maths! Give me a new topic, hobby or skill to learn and I’ll usually pick it up pretty quickly. Jack “Sponge” Fairfax, at your service.
While it’s a blessing having an aptitude for various tasks (one is never bored or strapped for creative ideas), it’s also a curse. As ridiculous as it is, I always envied the kids in school who excelled at only one or two things. It allowed them to focus and practise their craft until they were stellar; to carve out a clear identity through their chosen, or—through lack of options—forced pursuits.
But me? My Pandora’s box of eclectic loose ends and never-completed projects always left me frustrated. I thought if I pledged allegiance to one interest, I’d end up betraying another. So, I trapped myself in the “pretty decent” quartile of each skill, below an invisible ceiling of self-imposed choice paralysis, while others streaked on ahead.
As time went on, I hoped that leaving the land of standardised middle-school comparisons would help me find my niche skill or hobby; an identity I could call my own. Like a kid in the backyard creek collecting tadpoles in a jar, I hoped the muddy water would settle, the silt would sink to the bottom and it would be clear how many tadpoles were mine. But, rather than taking the time to be still and let the water separate, I kept the jar in my pocket, tripping over tasks and to-dos and treating life like a 100-metre dash to avoid facing the possibility of not having caught any at all. And everything stayed just as murky as before.
That is, until this year. When Covid-19 pressed the pause button on life as we know it, I was suddenly forced to stop. No more tripping over meetings or social catch-ups, no more IOUs, no more sprints to places or people to see. Time—the most precious gift of all—was suddenly all mine. So, I took the jar out of my pocket and—like an excitable kid told to be patient—watched the tadpoles appear.
A spark, an idea, a tadpole rearing its little head: what I wanted to do most of all was draw. And draw I did, for hours, every night after work. To condense a hundred hours into a sentence: I bought a printer and some high-quality paper and decided to open a little handmade cards and prints shop online. Sounds cute—simple, even—but this process was a more confronting, identity-shaping side hustle than I could ever have anticipated.
First of all, I had to decide what my “brand” would be; a first step that snowballed into a million other questions. Should I use my name in the title, or would that be too egotistical? And what should I sell under that brand? Cards and prints, yes, but should I also write music? Sell cute socks? Create an online course? Become a freelance writer? Sell custom logos? There wasn’t time enough to do it all. I had to pick and suddenly the same fears I thought I’d buried more than 15 years ago clawed their way to the surface. Choice paralysis ensued.
I shared my deliberations with friends and family, many of whom told me to pause (I’m obviously not very good at this) and take time to figure out my “why”; to really drill down to the core of what I was trying to achieve. So I did, and ended up with a list of 11 things. Eleven. A hopeless exercise, motivation gone.
Frustrated, I went for a run one evening to burn off some steam and while listening to the Being Boss small business podcast (I love how God works), co-host Kathleen Shannon shared exactly what I needed to hear—the secret that helped me get out of my own head and put my backside into gear:
“There are two ways to start a brand or business,” she said.
- “The first is to figure out your ‘why’—what makes your product different from everyone else’s? Take a mental dive, turn your juices into concentrate, narrow down your product or purpose to just one thing. Through this process, your brand or product will stand on its own two feet, separate from you.
- “The second is to sell yourself. The most obvious thing that makes you or your product different from everyone else is just that: it’s you. You are the best at being you, period. But it’s a trade-off. By taking this route, you choose to sell yourself. You have to be seen and be vulnerable, but in doing so, you have the freedom to create more than just one narrow product. Anything you make, do or share is unified because it’s made by you.”
I could barely believe my ears. It was so simple. My burden was lifted; my choice paralysis quickly healed. Contrary to the messages society had been feeding me since I was a toddler—What do you want to be when you grow up? What are you good at? What career do you want to pursue?—I realised I didn’t have to choose just one thing after all. Being given permission to be myself, freedom from the pressure to be or do something specific, brought me out of a self-imposed cocoon. The world grew infinitely bigger.
If I’m honest, I still haven’t figured it all out. My “personal brand” still isn’t crystal clear, but through embracing my identity, I’ve started pursuing something. But I didn’t write this as a self-empowerment allegory, nor as a crash course in personal branding (not that I would have much wisdom to share); I wrote it to highlight how freedom of choice powerfully shapes identity.
When I was little, I loved the animated film Antz. There was one scene in particular that always resonated with me, where ant larvae are dumped on a table and instantly each given one of two jobs: worker ant or soldier ant. Boom, just like that. No decisions necessary, destiny predetermined. Having watched this film about 100 times over (as children do), I longed for someone to do that for me, to tell me who to be and what to pursue. Yet, it wasn’t until 23 that I realised I was being told all along.
Throughout my whole life, my family, friends and society at large—both implicitly and to my face—have told me that to be successful or important, you have to choose a specific career or vocation, stick to a path, climb to the top of the ladder. It’s what you do, know and make (financially, of course) that determines who and how important you are.
But then we’ve all heard self-help gurus and influencers attack this concept; it’s not money, power or recognition that defines success, it’s integrity, purpose and belonging. Then there’s the biblical perspective reminding us that reframing and grounding our identity in Christ is the key to happiness and freedom; that by recognising our infinite value as sons and daughters of God, we can be free from the world’s pressures and temptations to succeed. But so often we just slap the surface of this concept and fail to delve deeper. We forget that this freedom profoundly shapes our identity.
God could have told us at birth what to do with our lives. He could have grabbed the label-maker and bam, bam, bam, labelled us as accountants, philosophers, plumbers, artists. He could have taken away our power to choose, but it is through these choices and struggles that we each become unique.
Romans 5:3,4 says, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
The word suffering here could be replaced with choice. It was through God-given freedom of choice that Adam and Even ate the fruit and brought sin and suffering into the world in the first place. So free choice led to suffering, but without it there would be no genuine experience of love. If Adam and Eve had been programmed like robots to love their Creator, they wouldn’t have really loved Him, or one another. The same goes for us.
Even though free choice causes difficulties, frustration and suffering, it also allows us to discover what we truly love, like and dislike . . . and what we are good at. Through good and bad choices, we experience joy and pain, we develop resilience, we learn. It shapes our character.
So now, at 24, I’m thankful that God didn’t label me, and I’m grateful for the freedom He’s given me to choose my own path, as difficult as that has been.
But, most importantly, I’m grateful that my identity is no longer based on success; on choosing just one thing and sticking to it. As His daughter, I don’t need validation from others, and I don’t need to prove myself.
I just need to be myself.
Maryellen Fairfax lives in Sydney and is assistant editor for Signs of the Times’ sister magazine, Adventist Record.