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Context Collapse Under the Midnight Sun

tromso bridge

Embrace the Collapse of Context

Merging your personal and professional lives with your passion unifies your life around a cause. With a singular focus, everything you do professionally and personally adds to your legacy. Instead of fighting to keep different aspects of your life separate, consider them important pieces that add up to who you are and why you do what you do.

Guiding Above the Arctic

scott-meyerI first learned how hard it is to embrace the collapse of context in the Arctic:

“To your left is the Northern-most university in the world, and to your right is the local ski jump strategically placed next to the hospital. (pause for laughter). We’ll soon be arriving to the Husky farm where new puppies are waiting to meet you!”

For two beautiful summers, I rode shotgun on tour buses, guiding English, Norwegian and Spanish-speaking tourists around Tromsø and Lofoten Islands. It was such a thrill. I would greet people from around the world and show them my adopted home.

Many of the English speakers would approach me after the tour and tell me I spoke “pretty good English for a Norwegian but there were a few specific things I could improve.” Only then would I tell them I grew up about 100 miles from their home. (The others had no comment on my language skills!)

An Expert and a Foreigner

During these summers, I was a tour guide by day and a bartender by “night.”

sunset-tromsoI say “night” because Tromsø, Norway is above the Arctic Circle and for two months the sun never sets (see photo of Tromsø at midnight).

The Midnight Sun is an amazing phenomenon but never more than leaving the bar after cleaning up at 3 a.m. The streets are vacant, yet filled with trash and seagulls. The sun is out, and it feels like an apocalyptic movie in which I was left behind.

My life during these years in the Arctic was one of constant identity switching.

At one moment, I was a local expert spewing facts and stories about my adopted home. The next evening I was learning Norwegian from a Swede and Greenlander while spying on true locals from behind the bar.

This identity switching never felt odd though, probably because most of us do it our entire lives. We speak and dress one way from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and do what we’re told to do during the day.

Once the proverbial whistle blows however, we change.

We change clothes, change our language, change the people who surround us and focus on our true passions.

Imagine if these were the same.

The Collapse of Contexts

It is increasingly difficult to separate your personal and professional lives. Adults and teens alike are constantly navigating different contexts and deciphering what is cool, what language they can use and how they should present themselves.

Danah Boyd argues that we are now experiencing a “context collapse” in which we no longer have strict boundaries on our different contexts. What you say in a personal context is easily discoverable by people in your professional lives. Students are warned about this by every career counselor being told to delete any photos or tweets that might reflect poorly to a potential employer.

In fact, an entire industry has been created for reputation management. High-level executives might shell out thousands to a site like reputation.com to clean up their professional image. As many public officials like Anthony Weiner have discovered, the personal context quickly spills over to the professional context, and they can be dramatically different.

On a less extreme scale, we face the conundrum of contexts every day. We like to compartmentalize our lives, which is why a service like LinkedIn is so attractive. You put on your professional hat, know the language you should use and the topics you should discuss and log off after 5 p.m.

A site like Facebook however mashes this up. We might talk to an old classmate, a potential client and our parents in the same five minute span. What can you post that will show people you are cool/funny/intelligent without alienating the other audiences that might also be your “friend”?

Context collapse is a reason many young people are avoiding Facebook and moving to sites like SnapChat. They want a place where they can talk to their peers, away from the judgmental eyes of parents and potential employers.

context collapseEmbracing Context Collapse

We fight to hold on to our compartmentalized lives. What if we let it go? What if you embraced context collapse? What if you connected the contexts of your life (like the Tromsø bridge at noon during mørketid, or the dark times)?

Embracing the collapse of contexts liberates you.

It enables you to speak with a singular voice to describe who you are, what you do and most importantly WHY you do what you do. As we have discussed in previous posts, the most important statement to help grow your business or community is articulating WHY you do what you do.

In a world where every product and service is within two days delivery of your door, why should someone work with you, move to your city or join your non-profit? The answer is: they believe what you believe. How will they know if they share your belief if you don’t share it in every context of your life?

If you allow your identities to blend, you spend your entire life creating a body of work (not just your life after 5 p.m.). Everything you do, whether volunteering for your local school or signing a new client, moves you towards your mission. The mission might have professional aspects and personal aspects. To outsiders however, this mission is just who you are. You believe in something and your work, paid or unpaid, is dedicated to your belief.

Championing a cause is easier when you embrace collapsed contexts. When you’re at your child’s soccer game you might engage in a conversation about your passion, and during a conference call you can share those same thoughts and lessons with your business partners.

The Challenge of Collapsed Contexts

This singular context does make it difficult to unplug. If everything you do is moving towards your mission, how do you ever stop working? How do you take your mind off things?

The answer, if you believe strongly in your mission you won’t be able to unplug. You should embrace that mission in all contexts. Talk about it, learn about it and share it in everything you do personally, professionally and socially.

However, be mindful not to use your mission as an excuse to put on blinders. Sure, you may know your mission, but it should not be the only thing you talk or think about. Instead, it should be a thread running through and inspiring what you do, not dominating your priorities. In this way you can “unplug” by not specifically working on your mission, even though it will be in the back of your head read to insert itself when appropriate.

Use this unplugged time to add a new perspective. Maybe a task you are required to do does not “fit your mission.” How could that task add a new method to pursue your mission? Keep the goal in mind but remember that there are multiple routes to achieve it.

Unify Work and Mission

You can work from anywhere on anything. Unfortunately most of us work on something we are not passionate about and look forward to 5 p.m. when we can work on what we truly care about.

Liberate yourself by making your work and mission one in the same.

Work is suddenly not work, it’s the building of your legacy. What’s more, your life’s work then answers the question we all ask: what is my purpose in life?

Own your purpose in all you do. Celebrate the collapse of contexts.

Few others will make this leap. If you do, you will stand above the fray and achieve remarkable things.

Photos: Personal photos; Bridge photo courtesy of Maaike Knoll.