Here lies Steffan Postaer. He wanted to be a good man but he was too busy writing…

January 13, 2010

Is what you are who you are?

Last Sunday, Pastor John Buchanan (Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.

While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well…

We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?

In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.

But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with…what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?

Uh oh.

I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at Euro RSCG in Chicago. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.

So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog credibility (hopefully). Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? I can barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?

According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…

To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off on doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.

His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ they are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’

I promise…just as soon as I rewrite that body copy.

Pastor Buchanan\'s sermon

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24 Responses to “Here lies Steffan Postaer. He wanted to be a good man but he was too busy writing…”

  1. Mike Pugh said

    Great post. Tricky topics.

    The good thing is that, as a writer, you don’t have to retire! Long after you hang up your day job, you can putter away on the keyboard. Your best work may spring out of that period. Hemingway wrote Old Man and the Sea in his 50s. Updike produced great work in his 80s.

    The notion of our identities being so wrapped up in our work is another matter. When I lived in Europe, identifying oneself with a job was the *last* thing you’d talk about with a new acquaintance. Your job didn’t define who you were much at all. Which, frankly, was refreshing. Because it prevents those snap judgments that so often occur – “Oh, you’re a county clerk? You must be boring.” And helps you go deeper into who that person really is.

    At the same time, many of us spend a dominant chunk of our waking hours practicing our craft. So it’s hard not to identify with it. And, frankly, I love talking about writing and advertising. It’s why I subscribe to this blog.

    Still, for many of the reasons your pastor mentioned, I’m working hard to establish life balance. I’m a spiritual being having a human experience, a husband, father-to-be, brother, son, traveler, ad guy, etc. It’s important for me to cultivate all these facets – and not let one overshadow the others.

  2. SRP said

    Very well said, Mike. Thank you.
    I also am aware of how relatively unimportant one’s job is (as social currency) in other countries. Why I said “In America” when I wrote about it here. For better and worse, ambition is a defining part of our culture. And mine.
    As for writing until the end; you’re right: we can. But will it be relevant…and will we have an audience? Without either, writing is little more than a schoolgirl’s diary…

  3. we are far too obsessed with what we do in this country rather than who we are. and i think it’s especially heinous when people in superficial industries such as ours end up divorced or depressed because they give too much to their jobs–ie, worrying about the copy for a website that no one really cares about. it’s one thing for a person to make huge commitments to the medical field or to create a work of art that may last for ages, but when they’re trading time with family to spend extra hours at the office coming up with yet another logo treatment, well, that’s just kind of sad. and the trap is, as their family life erodes, they become even more consumed by the job, because that’s where the positive ego strokes are coming from.

  4. Wonderful post. Something I’ve spent many sleepless nights thinking about. What I’ve arrived at, in a nutshell, is “Focus on where your personal ambitions and the higher angels of your nature can share goals.”

    Recently I wrote the following to describe what my intentions are as a writer and advertising creative:

    -I spend most of my free time studying religion, mythology, philosophy, and psychology. And I’m continually taken with the reality that powerful advertising works exactly the same as powerful religions, mythologies, and social movements. This means we have no excuse to do less than our best. Every time ad agencies and clients settle for “cheap and cheesy” work, they’re missing a tremendous opportunity to promote innovation and inspire minds. Indeed, this business is about selling product. But at the end of the day, I want to say “I did my best to help consumers make better decisions, help worthy brands compete, and help society become more creative.”-

  5. SRP said


    “…trading time with family to spend extra hours at the office coming up with yet another logo treatment, well, that’s just kind of sad.” Funny, painful, true.


    What you’re espousing sounds a lot like karma -and how to do the next right thing in an “ungodly” business like ours. Which, for those paying attention, is the primary reason I started this blog!

  6. On karma- I hear you. I’m actually not sure if karma exists. But I do believe that we are here in this form to be an active part of an infinitely creative and loving force.

    Again, nice post and thanks much.

  7. Eric Fromm said great sex was like “fusion with integrity–”
    That’s what one’s writing should be. Why can’t a headline or website comment have the same ultimate meaning if one does it with integrity? Not every piece of a novel is profound. Yes, as Aldous Huxley said, “All experiences are private.” To bring a reader into that world is exhilarating. That’s why poets are so
    successful, “They explain the universe–“

  8. adchick said

    I often have thought, deep in the heart of of America, that in the enormous world picture, what difference are WE making? What we’re doing here, does it really matter? We spend much energy making small things happen, yet to the small clients we serve, they’re pretty important. Beyond everyday client business, we try to find some professional self-worth by donating countless hours to the marketing efforts of a local womens shelter, gradually changing public perception of domestic violence. On any scale, the human ambition to create, do the best we can, be a worthy human, remains. Now, I must run and find Eric Fromm’s book about sex, fusion and integrity! 🙂

  9. Andy said


    For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

    Good way to think about it, as a natural law rather than punishment or reward in a religious sense.

  10. Dan said

    I don’t think there’s any reason to separate ourselves from ‘what we do.’ It does say a lot about ourselves, and it does have meaning.

    That said, there’s a lot of people who are retired or laid off that keep ‘doing’ even if it’s something new. And a lot of times it’s a lot more meaningful. It’s true, a lot of people who are laid off do feel a ting of shame when asked ‘what do you do?’ But is it more of a status thing, or more about wanting to be a productive part of society?

    And as for advertising. I’m sure most of us would agree there’s power in advertising, or at least the potential to have great power. So why can’t that power be put to good use.

    Qho we are, is what we are, whether or not we are gainfully employed in a trade or not.

  11. Alexandra Rogers said

    Amazing post–something I’ve thought about often, especially as I make my own decision between entering academia or entering advertising for the rest of my life. With so much of American self-identity wrapped up in the 9-5 (and by that, I mean 9-midnight), I have been having this conversation with other friends in their early twenties in situations similar to mine. The spiritual twist is quite interesting as well. Thank you for the post.

  12. which is more important: climbing the corporate ladder or leaving work early to watch your kids climb the playground slide?

    and, if we do go to the playground, are we constantly checking our blackberries to make sure we don’t miss the important message from the client? and therefore missing something even more important?

    life is about choices. the ad world is littered with broken marriages and estranged children because dad or mom made a decision to work a little late a little too often.

    seek balance.

    keep things in perspective. (for example, even the best ad writers–david abbott, julius koenig, hal riney, etc, don’t in any way measure up to writers like raymond carver, david foster wallace or michael chabon. they’re the majors and we’re single A. that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to be your best, but the rewards aren’t going to be art, they’re going to be more sales for the widget maker. so you have to decide if that’s worth the sacrifice.)

    have fun. it’s a silly, often dumb, business we’re in.

    • Dan said

      Hard to disagree with anything Jim has said in response to this post. Family absolutely 100% has to come first in life.

      Interesting of all the people I talk to the ones who are the least happy through this recession are the ones who have been at the same job since before the crap hit the fan. Most seem to feel used and abused by their employers.

  13. that leads me to another point dan. if any agency that employs you tries to get you to believe that the company is one big happy family, well, run as fast as you can. it’s bullshit. you have one family, and it’s not the people you work with. you’re real family will never fire you. or worse, make you work on a cigarette account.

  14. SRP said

    I wonder, Jim.
    Can’t the workplace operate like a family: nurturing, providing, etc? On some level anyway.

  15. supdog said

    Wonderful discussion. Jim, your points hit home and remind me to strive to be a better dad. Your crackberry reference was especially true. Thanks.

  16. stef, sure on some level, but how about just treating people with respect and dignity in the workplace and running a smooth operation so they can spend as much time with their real families as possible? personally, i don’t want pool tables and juke boxes at work–i just want to do my work and go home. when i see all that stuff in an office i start to think–uh, oh, they want me to move in or something. there’s an agency in town that used to really promote a big, happy family type of image. the reality was much different–affairs, sexual discrimination, bullying from creative directors and physical harassment were just of few of the things i learned about from friends who worked there. some family.

  17. Mom101 said

    I’m not a particularly religious person but I’ve always loved the line, “God doesn’t judge us by the job we have but by the job we do.”

    Being a writer is noble. We bear witness. We testify. We give others comfort and community through our words. Even through our ads, if we find a way to put our values into our work.

    The perspective Jim talks about and the fulfillment in our lives all comes down to balance. And balance trickles down. You’re at the top Steffan – are you helping to create an environment where your staffers can have a life too?

  18. SRP said

    Yes, Mom101, to answer your question: I am. That’s how it is at our shop. And for that we are blessed. I think the values you and Jim are talking about are far more important than just “good ad, bad ad.” I know working together to achieve such unity is truly rare and special. Believe me, I know. I also know the shop Jim is talking about. Not hard to guess. The part about that “family” that was bad is something I/we strive not to replicate at our agency. We made it through 2009 intact and with engines on. Karma happens…

    • Mom101 said

      That’s fantastic Steffan. Your people are really lucky to have you. I haven’t worked for too many people in my career who have uttered the words, “It’s 6:00 – what are you still doing here?”

  19. mom101, as a psychiatrist friend of my once told me, balance is very hard to achieve. you have to list your priorities. if family comes first, then you make decisions based on that. ie, if family truly comes first you don’t spend so many nights at the office playing politics. the key is, something has to come first. it can be 50/50 family and work. that never works out in the end because you’re always caught in the middle. in the end corporations are poor substitutes for what we really need in life–family and friends.

  20. Mike Pugh said

    A corporation *is* a sort of family, whether it overshadows your real family or not. At work and at home, similar dynamics are at play – patterns, struggles, loyalties, co-dependencies, etc.

    The question is, is your corporate family healthy and functional?

    The good news is that, like in real families, a single individual can change the dynamic. Whether they’re the CEO or the proofreader, once they get their priorities straight and act with integrity, their actions can tip the greater family unit toward functionality.

  21. desmond said

    Back to work. All of you.

  22. I frankly think the “we’re a family” speech is both insulting to the idea of family and the agency itself. It’s completely the wrong frame to use. Some form of “we’re a team” is more appropriate and workable. I have a feeling that agencies aren’t going to be making the “we’re family” speech much in the coming years because it’s just so dishonest. Teammates and friends, yes. Family, no.

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