Define vs. Inform

February 2011

Not long ago, I heard a snippet of a narrative on NPR of a man, unable to walk or stand since birth, who declared that his disability does not define him, but rather informs his life. His distinction between “define” and “inform” struck me. The dictionary defines inform as “to animate or inspire.” Define includes among its definitions “to explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of; to determine or fix the boundaries of.”

In thinking about what really defines me, I came up with human being and woman for starters. Now, my sons would say being a mother defines me (perhaps more than it should, considering my sons are grown men now). Some might say “lover of all things chocolate” defines me; they have a point there, but I hope that a brownie compulsion isn’t an essential part of my nature. But that got me wondering about what I all too often allow to define me. Things like circumstances, fears, insecurities, and certain long-held beliefs came to mind. How might I be different if I let those inform my thoughts and behavior, but not define them? Perhaps there is something about choice that creates part of the distinction between what defines and what informs us.

So, what does inform my life? Caring, curiosity, a desire to help others, an innate sense of joy, and a strong desire for peace is what I believe animates me. I hope some of those attributes might someday define me. The desire to have wisdom, integrity and courage helps to shape my actions and beliefs (at least on my best days). Clients almost always inspire me. My work as a coach informs my professional life and imbues much of what I do. Listening to that recent broadcast took me back to the time years ago when I vowed that cancer would not define me, although I can say it certainly informed my perspective on life and continues to do so (in a healthy way).

What informs your life? What defines you? If I can support you in thinking about that distinction, and how it pertains to your professional world, please let me know. It would be my pleasure to explore that with you.

Warm regards,

Sharon Keys Seal

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