Me: Hi, I’m Daisy.
New Friend: Hi! I’m John. Nice to meet you.
Me: Nice to meet you as well!
John: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a private educator. What about you?
Sound familiar? One of the very first things we tend to ask people when we meet them is, what do you do?
And understandably so. Theoretically, everyone does something.
But so often the spirit of that question is more evaluative than it appears. It’s not seeking to know what one does for fun, or what one does on vacation, or even what one enjoys reading or watching.
The question, in so many contexts, is intended to evaluate a person’s professional, educational, or even financial worth. What is your role in society? Are you important?
As a result, What is your occupation? often leads to either an enthusiastic “I’m a (blank)!!” or a reticent “I’m just a (blank).”
But, other than a good fallback question during an awkward conversation, it is easy to tell that this question does not do much more for us. If someone gives you an answer, what do you say next? Does it really tell you a lot more about them? Usually not.
Exhibit A. Someone might tell you they’re a technician. But have you met more than one technician? I have, and they’re completely different people and probably wouldn’t even like each other. Case in point.
I think that there can be a lot of pressure on women and men age 22 to 65 to have a good answer for this question. And not just for cocktail parties or lulls in conversation, however; some of us feel the need to answer this question for our own sense of confidence.
I used to believe that I needed a full-time 8AM-5PM (or 8AM-8PM) job to call myself a real adult.
More specifically, what I meant by that was this: I needed to be indispensable to a larger organization in order to feel good about myself. To pass my own metric of what it means to be a “productive, useful person.”
Talk about an ego crutch for me: if I must report at a certain time and am financially compensated by some larger cohort of individuals, then I must be doing well in life.
And our resulting societal assumption: if this person has a more/less intense, well-paying or unachievable job than I do, then they must be more/less important than I am. Which is all that matters.
But as soon as we look around at friends, neighbors, and family members, we know that this is not true. We know so many people whose careers are more about literal breadwinning than about passion or personality. We know so many people who hate their jobs. So many who, if they were fearless and well-resourced, would do something quite different from their current occupation.
We also know that careers can change in the blink of an eye.
And yet we keep asking. Perhaps in conversations, there aren’t many other choices than “What do you do?”, just as we don’t really think when we say “How are you? Fine.”
But is this the conversation we have with ourselves everyday? What makes me important? Does my job boost my self-esteem?
Being redefined: It’s not all about your career
I’d like to propose several ways to redefine ourselves– if not at a meet-and-greet, then at least in our own minds.
1) We are defined by what we do in our free time. Think about it: your job might be obligatory, but what you do during time off (assuming you have any) is completely up to you. Therefore, it can be a stronger reflection of who you are. Spending time with friends and family, exercising and cooking for your health, serving the community, or pursuing a fun interest are all things that can say a lot more about you than your job.
2) We are defined by our wildest dreams. Our dreams are made of our very deepest desires. And often, those desires are quite unique. Perhaps our desire is to assume a position of influence. Or, we desire to be of service to the most destitute. We might desire to create and express what others feel but cannot put into words. Our deep desires have great influence over who we are.
3) We are defined by what we cherish most. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” So what moves you? What convicts you? It may not be your job, but perhaps it is your understanding of your place in the world, or what you put as #1 before everything else in your daily life. That one thing.
Have you ever defined yourself solely by your occupation? What are other ways that you define yourself?