If someone asked you to develop a six-word statement of your identity – a half-dozen words capturing your entire life story – what would those six words be? Six words: No more, no less.

Inspired by bestselling book “Not Quite What I Was Planning,” (which, by the way, was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s famous tale “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn”), we asked the 86 students in our Communication and Citizenship course, COJO 111, last week to write their six-word memoirs to get them started on their first writing assignment of the semester. Each student’s six-word statement was to be the title of their essay; they then were required to take a scholarly perspective on their identities,

exploring how interactions with multiple others and the media shape “self.”

I spent pretty much all last weekend reading and grading dozens of the COJO 111 students’ “Who Am I” essays. Fascinating. Funny! Shocking. Sometimes heart-wrenching. Many of them made me worry about how poorly students see themselves; most of them left me inspired by the creativity and complexity of our students, even at the ripe young ages of 19 and 20.


Since reading their essays I’ve been walking around thinking in six-word statements. It’s driving me nuts! “Move over lady, coming on through.” (said to myself as I piloted the family station wagon to and from swim team and gymnastic practices the other night). “Stop yelling at your sister, now!” (uttered in an embarrassingly loud voice, especially for someone who studies family happiness). Oops. But what really captures the core of my “story?” I pray I’m more than “hurry up, move on, go fast” and “be kind, calm and loving. NOW!” So I kept searching.

As I was folding my third load of laundry last night, peering out of the corner of my eye at a pile of to-be-graded papers from another class, I landed on my final six-word memoir: “Neat freak. Seeks ironing and folding.” That captures me perfectly! I adore order. Seek the end to chaos. Find true joy in making things, like piles of clothes and papers-needing-grading, organized again. Maybe because those tasks are so simple compared to making messy/conflicted/painful relationships neat and tidy. I try at those too, but often come up short.

Okay, but there is still more to me. How about: “Everything is better when it’s complete.” Close! I do love to “accomplish” things.
“Secret to life? Truth, chocolate, wine.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

Ugh. I can’t decide. Maybe what I’m looking for is advice? “Breathe. Be. Stop thinking so hard.” Good points, self.

I decided to ask students in another class what six-words they would choose to reveal their “selves.” They looked pensive and appeared to be thinking hard. No one answered. I told them to come back next class with their ideas. “It’s hard, isn’t it?” They nodded.

Later that day, as I was chatting with a neighbor, I suddenly asked her what her six-word statement of identity would be. She looked at me as if my dog had just pooped on her lawn. Huh?

It’s a hard but intriguing task, capturing your core identity and life story in only six-tiny-but-tasty-bites-of-words. But our 86 mostly first-year COJO 111 students did so. And quite brilliantly. Here is a sampling of what they came up with – in class, it was followed, of course, by 800 to 1,000 words exploring what their six-words reveal about who they “are” as people, community members, students, brothers, young adults, multicultural beings, sugar-addicts, sleep-deprived adolescents, travelers, tom boys, identical twins, film-buffs, and faithful souls … :

Wait, don’t you know I’m kidding?
Spoiled? Of course I am.
Anxious procrastinating perfectionist needing more time.
Caught in a world of film.
Daddy’s little swimmer still passionately dreaming
Spontaneous Twin loves Starbucks and Change
Just trying to survive two cultures
Meticulously wrapped artist unbounded by love.
From largest city to … be announced.
Living in faith, yet with style.
Enjoying freedom as I gain responsibility
Much weirder than meets the eye.
The curtain lifted. Here I am.
I am stuck in the transition
My daily bowl of lucky charms.
Traveled the world and found myself
I’m whoever they say I am
Too complex for only six words

Are we too complex for only six words? Maybe so. As a family/marriage/communication researcher, teacher, author, community member, mother, daughter, friend and … well … there’s more … but I only get six words … I think my statement would be (reserving the right to edit those half-dozen words as my “self” evolves): “Building strong families, yours and mine.”

What would your six-word statement be?

Students “shout out” their 6-word identities.

6 Responses

  1. Laura - Minneapolis

    I tried this in my art history class and everyone loved it. The students had to write six-word statements about a film they’d just seen. They came up with some clever sentences.

  2. Devon Grae, Bird Island

    Simply put:
    “Everything always happens for a reason…”

  3. John - Washington, DC

    My six-word statement: Thankful that it’s all socially constructed.

  4. Michael Saint Paul, MN

    My six-word statement would be: Learning to know and love God

  5. Patrick - Farmington

    This was so fun to read, and insightful of the students!

  6. Carol - Green Bay

    I love this, Carol. This is the kind of stuff I think about all of the time–a scary lot we academics, aren’t we?