Thursday, March 19, 2009

You are not your job.

At what point in our youthful idealism have we outgrown the need for knowing someone? When did it become standard to evaluate a person based on their economic occupation? How did I become so lazy as to reduce someone's entire life into four easy, monosyllabic words?

"What do you do?"

Hang out with anyone 25 years old or older and I guarantee it's among the first of three (at most, three) introductory questions. Usually the newcomer's name will be offered, followed by some obvious commentary: "Crazy night, huh?" "How do you know John/the groom/my brother?" etc.

But invariably and inevitably the question comes.

"What do you do?"

For some, the question is met with pride and relief. Finally, you've been given opportunity to announce your station in life. Maybe your job connotes some prestige or respect or earning power and you're now allowed to bask in the validation afforded by your job title.

For others, the question is met with sheepish indifference, usually followed by some kind of qualifier. "I work in a warehouse, but I'm going to school to be a teacher" or "I'm a teacher, but I'm starting a small business." The question we've asked has now placed an uncalled-for burden of anxiety on the person, all in the name of "getting to know someone."

Since when has a person's job title been enough to know them? When has the way someone converts time to money ever been a sufficient peek into their lives?

The truth is, I cannot know someone by knowing their economic occupation. You cannot know their heart or their passions by knowing where or how they spend 8 hours of their day.

There are times when someone is genuinely interested in knowing your job. But, I would submit that most often the interviewer is simply too casual, too lazy to ask the hard questions.

It is always wrong to assume that someone's reply to the question will tell me who they are. At this point, all we're doing is sharpening our stereotyping skills (I call it discernment) by measuring them against our imagination. A losing game, for sure.

"I'm a lawyer"
"I'm a teacher"
"I work in a warehouse"
"I work in a restaurant"

It's the ultimate question in failure, there is never a right answer. Essentially, we're asking a new person to play some sort of mind-reading trivia game against all of our past experiences. Any answer the person gives is immediately measured against your unique and distinct emotional history with that occupation. We've got it so wrong. I have it so wrong.

And every assumption is never fully accurate and always fully unfair.

These four words have irretrievably and indiscriminately reduced someone to the answer of your careless line of questioning.

How disappointing it would be to realize that what you do for 8-10 hours a day has become your identity, your single identifying trait worn proudly/humbly/begrudgingly as a badge of introduction.

I think the offense goes beyond the laziness of the person asking the question. For so long we've supported the idea that our validation comes from our occupation. Our business has become our business card, our mutual link to the understanding of another. I've traded passion for pretense.

What if we chose never to ask the question? What if we decided that the value and estimation of a person is found in his passion or in her heart. There's too many proving this wrong. I know guys in "noble" occupations who aren't noble people, and I know just as many who carry mundane tasks with the heart of an adventurer. You are not your job.

I know teachers who "do it for the money," and lawyers who wish they were teachers.

What if we responded to the inevitable question by answering in passion?

What do you do?

You are not your job.


erok said...

"I'm in murders and executions" - Great line.

I feel this way all the time.

I think we need to step up robot production so we don't have to wear our "Hello, I am a..." name tags. The robots can work for us. Not so we can be lazy, but so we can slow down our pace of life...have freedom to pursue new ventures and ideas.

Jesse B. Gill said...

See, I ask that question all the time for two important reasons:

1. I hate people and the last thing I really want to do is get to know them...

2. There's a good chance that my job is cooler than theirs is, making them feel inferior.

Mission accomplished.

Mrs. Bear said...

Yes! Thank you, Sean!

Kyle Rocks Hard said...

Well said man, well said. Writing is what you should DO man.

holly elaine said...

I actually love this question. For me it's an end to the conversation. It goes like this, "What do you do?" "I work for China." "Oh... okay." Done and done.

THE BEAR said...

"I don't want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me." - The Departed.

Shawn Melody said...

As Stephen Christian so passionately sings, "It's not about the money we make, it's about the passions that we ache for."
Thank God that he gives us those passions and they don't necessarily always mean they are played out in our 9-5s.

Rachel said...

That was a very interesting point of view! Great post!

The Passerby said...

Having just received my first real job offer, I get this. It's the craziest feeling for people to ask what I do, and to be like "Yeah, I'm nineteen, not even done with my first year of higher education, and THIS is what I do, suckers," complete with growing a little bit taller during the sentence. But it makes me a jerk, because the week prior I was painting walls and filing light-gobos into the wee hours of the morning for minimum-minimum wage. My existence and my essence and my personality didn't change because I got a "better" job, but my attitude almost did. But you're right - a job title is nothing but a jacket.

I think people forget the truth in this post. So thanks for the reminder.

S.M.K. said...

HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD, while doing it with poetic prose. KUDOS.

S.M.K. said...

sean, I wanted to let you know that I changed by URL. It is no longer toomuchtoolate716. Now it is

William said...

Durham this is absolutely amazing. You've inspired me to ask new questions, and to look past the crazy stereotypes that we all accept as the standard. How stupid. How amazing to spot. Kudos for finding the obvious, and pointing out to the rest of us who miss it.

You've given me something to chew on and I thank you for that.

Keep sharpening our minds dear Durham.