In our capitalist-driven culture, it feels nearly impossible to separate your job from your sense of self. “What do you do?”, strangers ask you as polite small talk. Maybe you do gardening, maybe you raise three kids, maybe you play ultimate frisbee on weekends — but you know what they are really asking: “What are you paid to do?”
This is a question that can leave many with insecurity, wondering if their answer is good enough.
Your profession is considered a defining feature of your personality. And, of course, there are tiers and categories of personalities:
- Doctor, lawyer, engineer — these are smart, successful jobs for smart, successful people.
- Farmer, truck driver, plumber — blue-collar jobs for your Average American™.
- Daycare worker, nurse, teacher — jobs for women.
- Fast food, retail, and lifeguard — jobs for kids.
From the day we are born, our parents start daydreaming about what our profession will be, considered a symbol for our success and happiness. Who wouldn’t want their child to be successful and happy?
Our entire schooling system focuses on preparing us for the workforce. Some schools, like mine, even offer aptitude tests to help children determine to which jobs they may be more naturally inclined. I forget what mine said.
I wanted to be an astronaut for most of my childhood. I was obsessed with space. I had a telescope I could use to see the craters on the moon, and a star chart to find the constellations. But, eventually, I learned that you have to be able to do a lot of pushups to be an astronaut — and girls aren’t good at pushups. I was in no position to prove them wrong. So I gave up on being an astronaut.
For a while after that, I wanted to be a surgeon. I may have watched too much Grey’s Anatomy.
Then, senior year of high school, I wanted to be a journalist, and I chose my alma mater, Ithaca College, based on their excellent communications school.
Within one semester I discovered Psych 101 — and changed my mind yet again. For the rest of the college, I wanted to be a neuroscientist.
I’ve changed my mind about what I want to be “when I grow up” at least another three times since I graduated. For a while, I was making 30k at a non-profit. Then, a couple of years later, I was making 90k as an engineer. My professions have come and gone like the seasons — and with it, my sense of self.
I’m not any of the things I promised my parents and grandparents I would be. I’m not an astronaut, surgeon, or neuroscientist.
Right now, I’m nothing. You could say I’m “unemployed” — even though I’m working on three different projects which I believe benefit people, all of which also provide me income. But my projects are scattered across a variety of themes: software, writing, activism. What can I say my job is?
If you don’t know how to answer “What do you do?”, do you even know who you are?
I’ve decided that I no longer care about what someone’s profession is. I care about what they are giving to the world.
What we do to make money shouldn’t be seen as intrinsic information about who we are. While some of us may love our jobs or have the stereotypical personality to match, for most people a job is just that: a job. And more importantly, a job rarely tells us anything about if someone is a good person or not.
I know Silicon Valley engineers who volunteer their time feeding the homeless and donate the majority of their wealth to altruistic causes. I also know engineers who spend their money on fancy houses, designer products, and eating out for three meals a day. The fact that they are both “engineers” says nothing of who they are as people, and what they give to the world.
I have friends who work at grocery stores, fast-food chains, and retail jobs who have stood up against injustice, put their bodies on the line through direct action and accepted the consequences. To them, a job is just what pays the rent so they can do the work they really care about. Many artists (writers included) could say the same.
When we ask a new acquaintance what they do, what if the answer was something bigger?
- “I fight for women’s rights.”
- “I try to provide what my family needs to be healthy and comfortable.”
- “I coach little league and provide a fun, safe, and social recreation for kids.”
- “I’m saving for a future where I can be financially independent and travel.”
- “I inspire others to make positive changes in their own lives.”
- “I fund and volunteer for animal rescues.”
For me, I’ve come to realize what I do in the fight for unpopular causes. I prefer to be a David in a world of Goliaths. The causes I take up tend to be lost ones — but I do my best work when I am underestimated and told “no”. This is what I do.
For some, the reality of what they do might not be so idyllic, like those who may be forced to say “I profit off the backs of others for my own material gain,” or “I try to take rights away from minorities.” All of the fancy job titles in the world don’t make your contribution to the world worthwhile.
The next time someone asks you, “What to do you?” try telling them what you give to the world instead — whether it is time through volunteering, beauty and movement through art, ideas through writing, or even just love to those around you. That is something actually worth having tied to your identity.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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