How Do We Define Ourselves

Who are you? Who am I? Am I my job? Am I my family? What defines us?


I have struggled with these questions for a long time, and to this day, I still think about them a lot. In our society, we use these titles to help give ourselves more meaning. For example, John the doctor, married with two kids, and marathon runner. Or we might describe someone as Mary the social worker, divorced with a dog. We end up labeling everyone as something – their job, their relationship, the things they own, their pets, their kids. And we love doing this, we like being able to associate a person with labels.

But what does this all mean? Why do we have this urge to put a label on everyone? I think it’s because we are afraid that if we don’t, we would be nothing. We are afraid to just be Allison, the human, the person here on this earth. We are afraid that our lives wouldn’t be important, if we didn’t have any labels.

But even with these labels, we are just one of 7 billion people living on this earth. How could we possibly think that our lives matter so much? We all live about 80-100 years, and in the grand scheme of humanity, it’s like the blink of an eye. Nothing.

I used to think of myself as “Allie, the swimmer”. Everyone knew I swam, or a least I thought everyone did. I showed up to class with wet hair, I had marks under my eyes where my goggles had left permanent marks, and I wore my swimming clothes to make sure people remember that I had gotten up at 5am to hop in a cold pool, when they were comfortably sleeping in their beds. I think I had thought I was better than other people, because I was a swimmer. Allie, the swimmer.


Even this picture above goes to highlight this pedestal, myself and potentially others put me on. I was 12, a state champion, a state record holder, a T-16 swimmer (which I don’t even remember what that means anymore…). This photo hung on a white cylinder block wall at the pool I used to train at, along with all the other fast swimmers on the team. Maybe younger kids passed this picture and thought, “wow, I want to grow up to be as fast as her.” But looking back on it now, I can see how I was just another kid who was part of the “participant trophy” generation. All us millennials grew up feeling like we were something special.

But then I quit, and I was nothing. I was your typical college student, in a sorority, went to fraternity parties, and did some “charity work” raking some leaves in someone’s yard a few times. I was your stereotype Vanderbilt student, which was what I thought I wanted. I wanted for the first time in my life to live like a normal person, sleep in, go partying, eat like a normal person. But I hated it. I felt so lost. I felt like I was nothing.

After two years of being just a “normal” college student, I dove head first into yet again another “extreme”. I became an investment banker and turned into “Allie, the investment banker.”

I went along with the role, working my tush off night and day, weekends, holidays, you name it. Even left a family reunion the morning after Thanksgiving to work the weekend back in the office. I always had my nails painted and would touch them up in the car, as too give the impression that I had everything together.

Until one day, I realized how stupid it all was. And I suddenly realized how dispensable and replaceable I really was. Here’s me below, with a silly smile, clearly thinking I was something important.

Investment Banker

After interviewing for a variety of positions, I took one that I thought would keep me in San Francisco, but landed me in Nairobi, Kenya. I wanted to see if there was more to life than making money, living in a fancy apartment, and spending $100 on a nice dinner and drinks just because I could afford it.

And I realized there was. Much more. And yes, I became comfortable with the idea of being a nothing. A person without a label. I am happy being Allison, Allie, whatever you want to call me. But it does not have to be followed up by some label of who I am as a person. I’m content knowing I’m a bag of bones, with a heart and a brain, and I can smile knowing now that my job, my sport and my possessions don’t need to define me as a person.

I just am. And I’m happy to be Allison Voss. So tell me, who are you?



4 thoughts on “How Do We Define Ourselves

    1. I think you need to watch this video link to what defines us. It is pretty simply explained here.
      Being the Beloved (FULL) by Henri Nouwen – YouTube

      Love Mom


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