On Oct 23 2014, I had the chance and honour to be invited as a Speaker for the 1st Edition of TEDxITBA, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, talking about international mobility and identity construction. You can watch it on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlQLFCrGJW8
The script of my speech follows.
I was born on a wide Greek island that boasts of fertility enclosed by the Mediterranean. Surrounded by sea, it separates Europe from the African continent, therefore acting as the natural border and intersection of two quite different collective identities and cultures: Europe and the Middle East. This place, my home, is Crete. Reflecting on my life as a 21-year-old university graduate, I see the intersection of three themes that have shaped my path. The three themes: Mobility, identity and gender, are the topics of my speech today.
Mobility has been an entire way of life for me, since my childhood, it shaped my mentality, my choices and my expectations. The first time I had to move out from Crete was when my parents got divorced. I moved to Athens with my mother, where I was enrolled at a French Catholic school. Strict and conservative, filled with nuns with grey scarves, they taught me perfect French and the necessity of ‘savoir faire’ (in other words how to behave well in a socially acceptable manner!) I was undoubtedly the perfect fit for the sterile knowledge of the Greek education system, you see, I was easily memorizing stuff. At high school, I decided I had to make a move again. So, I informed my teachers that I would quit, I would not go through the national exams and I would prepare to study abroad. This was during the beginning of the crisis in Greece, in 2009. Everybody thought I was crazy, both me and my parents of course. Despite what everyone thought and said, my own voice overwhelmed the rest and screamed for me to overcome all barriers to study abroad. This led me to choose the private International Baccalaureate school Athens College, the polar opposite compared to the schools I attended before. The courses were completely in English, some people thought I had some weird connection with Paris, and needless to say that an entire classroom burst out laughing when I pronounced ‘Christ’ with the such a frenchy accent!
In other words, I was going through the first serious ‘identity shock’ of my life. Fortunately, I survived the 2 years of the program and eventually I was accepted to study Economics, in London. I stayed in the royal and rainy United Kingdom for 3 years, I took my degree and the next step could easily be ‘settling down’ there. Instead, I chose to challenge the mainstream path and book a ticket for the South. You know, the South has been always attractive to me, ‘vuelvo al sur’ as you say in Spanish. And so, I landed in Buenos Aires.
If you ask me what defines my life up to now, I would say mobility. This is exactly the characteristic that makes me no different than many other young individuals of our generation, perhaps many of you. I got used in moving since I was a kid, by moving meaning leaving something behind, while having something awaiting ahead. In fact, we are part of a generation which is usually referred to in terms of ‘flows’; Immigration flows, student flows, worker flows… And wherever there is mobility, what naturally lies ahead is adaptation. Popular wisdom says that the way you treat failure shows your personality. I would say the way you adapt to new circumstances and new environments, shows your identity.
We are blessed to live during an era when mobility is democratized, when the young soul portrays the ‘flaneur’ spirit, the wanderlust, the quest for self-discovery. You might rationally think, that mobility is a privilege. And look, even, me, now, on stage, I represent a minority who has had the ability to cross the entire Atlantic, for 17 hours, on a comfortable airplane seat just to ‘explore’ the world. I acknowledge that there are barriers to being mobile, social, economic, political and so forth. I could give you a convincing, theoretical explanation from my science, economics, of how these barriers can be overcome on the micro or macro level, but I am sure you ‘ve had enough of theories, coefficients predicting impacts and statistcs.
I risk sounding like a grandma now, but I’ll speak from experience! In every corner of the planet I had the chance to step on, I met young people my age, whose paths have given me wonderful stories about the beauty of mobility. People who are the inspiration of my talk. More specifically, I met people who study abroad with 4 scholarships from their home as well as host country, students who crowdfunded to attend international conferences or pitch for their start-up abroad. I talked to people whose governments fund them to represent their countries in the international community, young talents who appeal to wealthy individuals and foundations for research grants, students who accept to work for an organization for free, with sole reward an airline ticket to the other side of the world, young hearts who left their corporate jobs to volunteer with orphans or prostitutes, and even people who crossed half of the planet to save little turtle eggs! I am not fool to believe that money does not facilitate travelling. Money being the crude way of specifying what we delicately mean by ‘resources’, in economics. But equally, I cannot ignore one key trait of all these individuals: persistence. Therefore, I am advocating today that mobility is not a privilege but an opportunity to be taken.
So how does mobility enable us to build our unique identity? At any point in time, we are this exclusive combination of influences of our environment, a mixture of moments experienced and stimuli received. Imagine of our identity at any present time, as the synthesis of all our cumulative experiences of the past. As with any economic model which starts with assumptions, when we are born we are automatically given some features to start with; In my case, I was born as a Greek, Christian Orthodox girl. Thus, my initial identity was more or less assigned to me, and I can confidently say that during our baby years, this identity is quite static, in fact only an approximation of what we will become in the future. Nevertheless, our lifetime identity capital is nothing but static; To the contrary, it is actively dynamic.Dynamic forces include invariability, fluctuations and periodical movements. Does it sound like jargon an economist would use? Well, in real life, all these describe the same, very simple word: change. We are continuously enriching our identities through a dynamic, contextual framework, through everyday change. And wherever we move, we carry this identity with us. It feels quite liberating saying this today. Why?
Two months ago, I returned to London after a wonderful trip to Asia. My house contract in London was ending in a few days and, along with this, I ended up with 15 boxes with all my stuff packed in bubbled wrap, ranging from forks and knives to travel souvenirs. And honestly, I had no idea what to do with them. In a state of uncertainty and despair, I called my mum and I had a small drama queen show on the phone. Up to the moment, she yelled at me, this few words that stroke me “You are letting 15 carton boxes define who you are. You have the illusion you need all these to be happy, although you can survive with none of them. Ship them back here, take a suitcase to go wherever you feel like going.” And this is what I did.
The same day the courier company took all of them. That night, I stayed in the middle of the empty house and I realized that what I was carrying inside me was more than enough; a newly refined identity of an individual, who went to London as a teenager and left as a young woman and young professional.
I turned 21 a few months ago. Being in your early 20s usually goes hand in hand with having no worries, no fears and no regrets. This is the period in your life when you have plenty of time for carrying out activities out of the job market, like traveling, but low earning potential to finance them. In other words, you have time and energy but no constant income! This is one of the basic trade-offs in economic theory and I would say one of the numerous trade-offs we face as young individuals. But are we really worry-free at this age? We graduate from university and we are expected to immediately land into a graduate job to kick-start our career as soon as possible. At a time, when admittedly most young employees are handpicked from their internships, we are even expected to work during the summer of our university years. We devote time to constuct the perfect online image, to have a well-polished Linkedin profile and be extra-cautious with Facebook, because as I’ve heard a hundred times «recruiters do check your facebook profile!» Our identities are placed in frames since our student years, frames in which we are expected to adapt. Often people have a business card at a very young age, while if you wanna work for a big multinational firm, you need to take tons of psychometric tests to be hired, tests that check your value system and the way you take decisions. Isn’t this the another example that our identity is constantly investigated? I am definitely the wrong person to give you advice on the job market. Why? Because I will discover it with many of you in the years to come. There are, however, two thoughts I would like to share with you, thoughts from advice people have given me and I am trying to incorporate in my life.
The first thing I urge you to do, is to think of who you are today and whom you do not want to become in the future. It should not just be your skills which match the job but, probaby more important is to find the job matching your identity. A job tailored to your talents, your creativity and most of all the aspiration you have of yourself. Make your day start at 8 or 9 in the morning, when you enter the door of your job and and not when you go out of it. My second thought relates to role-models. We have an inner need to find people to admire and respect, personalities whose path in life, successes and failures, brighten up the aspirations we have for our own selves. With information so readily available, it is relatively easy to idolise people far away from us, from poets to politicians and scientists to artists. Have you ever thought that the most wonderful role-models might be in very close proximity to you? The person sitting right next to you, your family or your friends. The very same people who influence your identity.
I am blessed to have two amazing parents to remind me of this. I’ll shortly tell you why. My parents were admitted at one of the top business school of Greece, in 1984. Both coming from families into commerce, they were more or less forced to study Business Administration. However, they soon met and following this, they quit university and started up their own business. In other words, they settled down, they started earning their own money and later they had me, at their late 20s. 25 years after they quit, both of my parents decided to turn back time and go finish their undergraduate degree. If you ask them, they will say that this has been the best experience of their life. If you ask me, this has been the funniest phase of my life, seeing them exchanging class notes and discussing with anxiety which topics will appear at the exam. In fact, I graduated earlier than them, while they both graduate from their Masters in a few months. The reason I told you this story is because my parents’ decision placed them at the centre of this ‘microcosm of little heroes’ I have built around me and from which I draw inspirastion. Other than that, their story has a clear message: it’s never late to embark on a journey that will make your identity stronger and richer.
I left the most obvious part of my identity for the end. How it feels being a 21-year old woman? Well, if you want an honest answer, it makes me feel resourceful, agile and confident. You might expect me to engage in common rhetoric, such as that ‘sexism cuts women’s wings’ while ‘feminism strengthens them’. Believe it or not, economics has immensely helped me to face these issues with rationality, rather than sensitivity, to place women in a comparative framework, to face gender inequality as an aggregate phenomenon to be tackled, rather than pure injustice. In other words, I am choosing to place gender issues under the umbrella of demography and development. You might rationally think that I am too naive to think this way, but this approach makes me believe that, sooner or later, humanity will develop the tools to solve gender ineqaulity, through policy-making rather than wonderful speeches on ‘how unfair the world has been to women’.
On a more personal note, if you follow my belief that what defines you is your identity, does it really matter whether sexism exists or what the ‘feminism’ term really means? To be frank with you, I come from a very female-centered family, something that definitely obscures my view on usual gender stereotypes. I am used in seeing women around me having a high earning potential, being at the top of the hierarchy and having a determinant role in family decision-making, certainly a privilege offered by the 2 countries I’ve lived in, Greece and the UK. It is clear then that your childhood experiences, as well as the overall tendency in the country you live in, have a tremendous impact on the way you treat the balance of power between the 2 genders. Growing older might soon prove me that I am in a state of daydreaming. But for the moment, I stay firm in my belief that if you have a robust identity, people can see an entire universe behind your long impressive hair, your high-heels or your feminine voice. Talking to the female audience, here today, treat your femininity as an asset to your identity and not as a barrier.
I would like to finish my speech urging you to take a step back from your routine, your studies and your job and self-reflect on your identity. Treat your identity like a white canvas which your life will gradually convert into a piece of art. You are the painter of it, so you choose the colours you want to use. Nobody expects you to produce a masterpiece but something representative of yourself. You will come across many different phases in your life, some will be black and white, others colourful. But no matter what, it will be your creation. Go out of your comfort zone, stay alone, learn how to enjoy solitude, move. Because only by moving, you can discover new colour shades, new patterns of painting your idenity, new paths to follow and new ways to evolve. Treat your identity as your brand in life, your reference point.
In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Give birth to your brand. Give birth to the identity that would make you proud of having.