With social media ruling society at large, individuals are encouraged to define themselves: find a niche. We pick categories to list under our names, pick a theme for our Instagram accounts, and are told to pick specialties in our careers and schooling. Essentially, when we enter adulthood or interact online, we are supposed to find a box and make ourselves fit into it.
I believe that we are more complicated than that. We are messy, contradictory, and plentiful—each one of us. Life is not one thing or a sequence of the same experiences. It’s everything; we are everything. It seems unnatural to stunt all of that, and pretend that we are simple, monotone beings—to pick one color from our palette, and throw away the rest.
Picking a niche can be helpful in some capacities. If you’re a doctor, deciding to specialize in one area of surgery is helpful to honing your craft. That said, doctors don’t start out with only learning about heart surgery or only learning about the brain. They learn as much as they can, and experience as much as possible, and then decide what suits them best. Also, if they like more than one area, they can do general surgery. The bottom line? They are encouraged to try everything, and have the option to keep doing everything; being everything.
I thought about all of this a lot this year. I recently finished my degree program, and have re-entered the full-time workforce. I am seeing that now, more than before, people are encouraged to stick to one lane. Instagram has created labels that individuals can put on themselves, so people will know what they are—what, not who, because a title can’t tell you who someone is. Offline, people are being encouraged to focus their time and presence on one thing. Whether this be to increase their networking opportunities, to gain followers, or to appear more professional, I am seeing one clear message: you are too messy for a stranger to make sense of. Polish it up.
It is one thing to decide that you have a passion, and to fill up your life with it, or to hone a skill that you’re excited about. It’s another thing to cut out everything except one piece of yourself.
I have always had a hard time picking something to focus on, but I never saw that as a weakness until I was older. That’s when I learned that I needed to minimize myself, or cut out anything “unnecessary.” In grade school, I played all of the sports. I was in art clubs and drama classes. I danced and organized kickball tournaments. As a teen, I loved both camping and art museums more than life. I wrote poetry and played volleyball and loved watching documentaries about outer space. I loved doing my sisters’ makeup and going backpacking. I would wear face glitter and floral dresses to school one day, and chacos and plaid the next. I would just as easily be found looking for seaglass on the beach as I would be found playing at an arcade with my sisters.
From birth, I’ve always been many things. I was never one thing, and I never only wore one hat. I never felt like I had to explain myself, pick a title for myself, or only have hobbies and interests that make sense for me. I felt free, because I was exploring. That’s what I thought life was—a time to explore ourselves and this planet. Then I got into my twenties, and I saw that I was wrong.
My entire being had to fit together in people’s minds. I had to either be artsy or sporty; outdoorsy or a bookworm: I couldn’t be both. Books about minimalism came out, talking about things like essentialism and the importance of a life without “distractions.” Social media became less about connecting with loved ones and photography, and more about building a “personal brand.” This is the age of branding ourselves, and yet we are human beings. We are not businesses or commodities, but this culture has turned us into them.
When we have hobbies, we are encouraged to monetize them or find something else to do. We are told to define ourselves for employers, romantic interests online, and supposedly for our own well-being. Don’t you want to be put together? Don’t you want to meditate in the morning and have a planner and be able to describe yourself in three words? If you do, you have to be something, not many things.
When I re-entered school, I wanted to major in everything. I’m interested in everything, I want to learn everything, and I’m passionate about so many things. I originally had two majors, two minors, and two concentrations picked out, but the school wouldn’t allow it. I found myself trying to narrow it down, and make whatever I chose fit together. In the end, I picked what I was most drawn to: environmental studies, creative writing, gender and women’s studies, and art history. Now, those things can fit together, but they’re not easily marketable together. I can’t even count how many people were baffled when I said I’m in those programs. They didn’t understand how they worked together, or why I’d be invested in all of those topic areas. Most people thought I was trying to figure out what I wanted; that I was lost.
I wasn’t lost. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted to explore my interests and learn about everything I could. Being in many places doesn’t mean you’re lost. It means that you’re living; venturing. That’s healthy, and fuels creativity and intelligence. It’s important for humans to be curious, and I’m proud to be that way.
I’ve since graduated, and I’ve been hit with so much pressure to change that about myself. I need to funnel my entire existence into a sellable focal point, and into a neat little category that I can list under my name. I have things that I’m most passionate about, but I’m not about to ignore everything else that I also love. I’m a writer, and I don’t just write one thing. I’m a poet, short fiction writer, climate journalist, creative nonfiction writer, essayist, and travel writer. I’m an artist, photographer, and climate activist. I cook, hike, travel, watch films, paint, read, play basketball, sing, swim, host parties, indoboard, follow the Olympics, and take bubble baths. Yet I just have “writer” under my name in my Instagram bio, and that’s all I’ll be to people looking in. If the rest doesn’t fit in that box, it’s irrelevant and doesn’t matter.
Here’s the thing though—I don’t have to condense myself, in order to be more easily digestible to others. I don’t have to collapse into a marketable slogan, because I’m not an object to be sold. My pieces don’t have to fit together, because I’m not a dollar store puzzle that needs to be easily completed. To be alive is to be fluid, bent, oddly shaped, and transformative. That’s a privilege, and it’s a beautiful privilege. I’m not about to simplify that down by only honoring one tiny fragment of my wholeness.
I have four college degrees, and I write. I write many things and many genres, and I also make many forms of art. I work as a chef at a local slow food restaurant, sell photography prints of landscapes and cityscapes and portraits, and I make candles. I love learning about quantum physics and musicals; films and competitive downhill skiing; Danish history and botanical dyeing. I am strong and athletic just as much as I’m ready to bury myself in a new book. I love alone time, but also feel so alive in large groups. It doesn’t have to make sense, because I don’t owe that to anyone. I am free-drawn, and that’s important, because it gives me space to feel and breathe.
I am not picking a niche, even though I’m told I should. “Niche” comes from the French word nicher or “to nest,” and I want to fly. I’m exploring careers and hobbies that I’m passionate about, because life moves too quickly to not spend every ounce of it taking up as much space as possible. I want to get everything I can out of this life, and I’ve recently decided that I don’t care if that means I look more chaotic to some people, or am hard to make sense of. I don’t want to make sense. I want to be whole— wings and all.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn