Define Yourself: You Are Not Your Job

I’m going to share an important lesson with you that I learned this past year: you are not what you do for a living. I’ll say it again, what you do for work does not define who you are as a person.

Sounds simple enough, right? I guess it depends on where you are in life and where you come from in the world. Think about this, when someone you just met says, “Tell me a little about yourself,” what is your first response? Do you reply with what you do for a living? I’m a stay-at-home mom of 3. I’m a self-employed website developer. I’m an accountant at a Fortune 500 company.

I’ve been guilty of this – I know I’m not the only one. And that’s okay… to a point. Until the time comes when you find yourself without a job. Or in a job that you hate, that doesn’t come anywhere near to fulfilling your potential. In return you reply with shame and guilt:

Well, I’m currently unemployed.

I used to have an important job, but right now I’m in telemarketing.

Suddenly, the loss of a job or working a less than satisfactory job equates to the loss of an identity. And that my friends is a problem.

Do you know what is one of my husband’s biggest pet peeves? When we are at party, or work event, or some other social gathering and the first thing a person asks him is, “So, Jimmy – what do you do for a living?” When he first vented about how inappropriate of a question that was to ask someone you just met, I scoffed a bit. Why would you care if someone asks you what you do? After all, this question is commonplace for pretty much any American adult.

As a child we are always asked what we want to be when we grow up. By the way, some people think we should stop asking this and for good reason. As young adults, people pepper us with questions as to what we are studying in school or what trade we are mastering to provide for our future families and for THE GREATER GOOD OF MANKIND (no pressure though my precious little snowflake). Asking someone what they do for a living is merely a progression of the same question we’ve been asked most of our lives by people we just met or hardly know.

But I had to hear him out, and when I really listened to his perspective it made a lot of sense. My husband patiently explained, where he’s from, at least in his small circle, people will rarely ask you what you do for a living when they meet you. They simply do not care. Not that they don’t care about you, but a persons job doesn’t define who they are. A job or career is merely how they make a living… so that they can do what they are truly passionate about. They may ask about your favorite sports team, or about your recent travels, or even about your family. Because these are things people are truly passionate about – I’m talking lights a fire in your soul passion.

You think people aren’t passionate about soccer “football”? Come to my house at 4:30am on a Saturday as my husband is chanting and cheering while watching the game being played in Scotland. The game that he absolutely has to watch live, because what kind of true fan records it and watches it later? That is commitment and passion folks. He doesn’t get up chanting like that to go to work on Monday morning – does anyone?

I suppose this can be chalked up to a simple case of cultural differences. He lives in America and understands why people ask him what he does for a living. He will politely field the question and casually redirect the conversation. So why do we care so much about what someone does for a living?

Our work becomes part of who we are based on the sheer fact that it is what we do 40, 60, 80 hours a week – 50 weeks out of the year (if you’re lucky enough to get those 2 weeks off). Your work shows that you are educated, dedicated, talented, and hard working. Why wouldn’t you want someone you just met to know that about you? But like I asked earlier, what happens when that work goes away? Who are we if we consistently define ourselves by what work we do?

I had to live through this unfortunate circumstance last year. I chose to leave my job to pursue another position, which I thought would offer more ability to grow in my field. Oh I felt sooooooo clever accepting an offer with a well-respected company with the promise of more growth and opportunities… even more time off. I was advancing. I felt successful. I thought I was making a good move not only for myself, but also for my husband as we kicked off our marriage. But shortly after the offer was extended and accepted, it was rescinded. Just like that.

I found myself without a job and more unexpectedly without an identity. My my, how the tables turned. I felt stupid. I felt foolish. And when asked by someone that I just met what I do for a living, I felt pretty worthless and embarrassed.

The thing is we build a sense of identify around what we do without even realizing we fell down the rabbit hole. In my last role I was a consultant. It meant I traveled to some places that were really nice and some that were not so glamorous. It meant I could walk into an organization and interact with the C suite executives just as well as I could work with the frontline staff. It meant I shared a level of accountability for large-scale multi-million dollar projects. Woohoo, look at me – aren’t I important? But just like that, I found myself doing something I never thought I would have to do – filing for unemployment and trolling the online job boards.

When I was unemployed and asked what I did for a living my hard work ethic, my dedication to education, and the communication skills I cultivated over the years were completely diminished. At least that’s how it felt. I was just another faceless leech dependent on the system. After submitting well over 100 job applications with customized resumes/cover letters/key words at a 20% response rate (usually in the form of a standard rejection email), it’s hard not to lose your confidence and give in a bit to losing a sense of yourself.

But at the end of the day, you need your partner, or your family, or your friends, or some random girl in a blog post to remind you that WHO YOU ARE IS NOT DEFINED BY WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING.

Okay okay, we get it. So what’s the takeaway?

I’m only one person, and certainly not intent on transforming society norms. But what I can do and what you can do is learn to describe who you are without incorporating your work. And hey, while we’re at it, let’s rethink how we start a conversation. Check out the article Want to Kill a Conversation? Ask Someone What They Do.

So instead, let’s try this:

Hi, I’m Natalie:

I love to travel! – I don’t care if it’s a weekend road trip or a month long jaunt in South America. I never feel more alive as I do when I am exploring a new place…

 I started a blog recently; it’s been fun learning to do something new and has given me a chance to start writing again…

 I discovered when I moved out west that I really enjoy hiking in the mountains – growing up in Ohio, my definition of “hiking” was a leisurely stroll through the woods.

Feel a bit uncomfortable? Of course! We slide right past the obligatory “Well I work in [insert your career field here] and get straight to the true me.

Let’s make it a little easier – just describe yourself to…. well, yourself… without incorporating your job. Can you do it? If not, maybe it’s time to reevaluate how you define yourself.

If you find yourself in a similar position as I did last year, questioning your worth, value, and identity based on what you do (or don’t do) I’m here to say I feel for you. And stop it. Stop it right now. You will find another job. Hopefully a better job. And when you do, don’t let it be the first and only thing you have to say about yourself when you make a new acquaintance.

You are dedicated, passionate, and talented. Don’t be afraid to say so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *