All the lives that do not fit

all the lives that do not fit - image for article by Greg Alder

Early in the 19th century, an Italian named Lorenzo ran a grocery store in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, a town of 700 people. He augmented the modest earnings from his shop by giving Italian lessons. In a town that size and at that time, there wasn’t a huge demand for Italian lessons.

Something that Lorenzo’s customers wouldn’t have known about the shopkeeper was that he was a celebrated opera librettist. In Vienna twenty years earlier, Lorenzo had written the libretto for 3 of Mozart’s most revered operas, The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così Fan Tutte (1790).

If any customer had learnt the truth about Lorenzo’s past, chances are that it would be met with disbelief. The Lorenzo that worked with Mozart couldn’t be the Lorenzo selling soap and flour in this tiny town on the Susquehanna River.

If they had learnt that their grocer was also an ordained priest, they’d have been doubly discombobulated.

Lorenzo’s former lives didn’t fit his current life. The facts didn’t fit.

And yet, Lorenzo’s story isn’t really remarkable. There are shopkeepers all over the world who were respected engineers or professors or surgeons in their home countries. Circumstances forced them to leave their places of birth to start new lives. Unfortunately their education and qualifications weren’t recognised in their adopted lands and they accepted jobs performing menial tasks for modest salaries, their real talent wasted.

Unfortunately, every job title comes loaded with preconceptions. We learn that someone is a grocer by profession and we see someone who was a student of average capability, a man lacking ambition, a journeyman living a beige existence.

Let’s say that I have arranged a lunch where you will meet a man named Martin. I tell you that Martin is a market researcher. How do you imagine Martin to be? A dull man doing boring work?

Then you meet Martin and over lunch you learn these facts about him: Martin played rugby for Ireland. He was ordained a priest. He lived in Botswana for 20 years, where he built a school for the blind. He was a passionate anti-apartheid activist. He’s married to an Austrian girl 30 years his junior. (Yes, Martin is real.)

These facts don’t fit your preconception. They’re not consistent with your image of a man who spends his days listening to opinions about a laundry detergent commercial or the softness of a new toilet paper.

A few years ago, I worked on the branding of a make-up artist. Those words, make-up artist, come preloaded with meaning. Before you prejudge, let me tell you about this make-up artist. She is a passionate, smart, ambitious woman. She has created her own line of brushes, each one purposefully designed to do its specific job better than similar brushes. The inspiration for her brush shapes came from Japanese calligraphy. She has published many books and DVDs. She fills auditoria for her masterclasses and seminars. Her career is a crusade to “liberate beauty”. She has 52,000 Facebook likes. She describes herself as an artist (whose medium happens to be make-up).

Very few people’s lives can be summarised on a headstone. Very few people’s skills can be condensed to a business card. Job titles exist for the sake of neatness. They pigeonhole us and hold us captive. Really, we’re better off without them. Don’t tell me what you do. Tell me who benefits from what you do. Tell me how you deliver that benefit. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing a person’s occupation to define his or her ability.

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