“So, what do you do for work?”

Photo by ZACHARY STAINES on Unsplash

When we meet and greet others, especially someone new, it’s an almost default question:

“So, what do you do?

I consider responding, “ Well, I do a lot of things, which would you like to hear about?”.

But the question is understood to be asking about our work, and it points to the fact that we understand others, at least initially, by what they do for a living. We want context for the person, and what we do for work can be revealing (to an extent). We spend a lot of our time and energy at work, so it’s a fair assumption that work can act as an initial barometer for someone.

But work is something that we do; it doesn’t describe who we are. And it’s an old-fashioned idea, based on prior generations where one picked a career at the outset of adulthood and stuck with it for decades, perhaps a lifetime. In today’s economies, individuals tackle all manner of work and jobs throughout their life, jobs, companies, and positions change. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a large segment of the American workforce will have six distinct jobs during their working career (after the age of 24). But for all our talk and identification with our professional work, the truth is that no one cares what we do for a living, especially our good friends and family. What we do for a paycheck is not overly important to them. And that fact frees us to focus on other, more pressing priorities.

Why Work Dominates

Work dominates our description of ourselves and others because it’s accessible, known, and transferable. We’re familiar with many types of jobs, careers, and fields, so it’s common currency in how we can quickly describe someone, or ourselves. Even our language is revealing: we say that “ He is a plumber.”, or “ She is a doctor.” As if their professional role was the total of who they are in life. More accurate language is: “He works as a plumber.”, or “ Her career is as a doctor.” Acquaintances might ask in casual conversation about your work and what it involves, but family and friends less so. Our employment is at the shallow end of the pool, and our family and friends know us more intimately.

For many of us, work is something that we have to do. Not grudgingly, or without interest, but our professional job that brings in a paycheck might not align with our overall priorities or interests in life. Instead, ask someone about what they like to do: what do they spend their time and energy on when they are not working? This answer is far more revealing of who they are.

Priorities And Character

When you are thinking of someone or introducing them to someone else, try describing them based upon their priorities. Work is the easy description: this person works as a lawyer; we can assume certain things about their life. But describing someone by their priorities means that you have to know that individual on a deeper level. You need to know what they spend their time and energy on, where their attention is focused. You need to understand what motivates them.

If you know the person better, go even one step further: describe them based upon their character. See them in the context of how they treat other people, if they are reliable and trustworthy, or if they’re an example of someone you’d like to become.

Stop The Pressure

There is a lot of pressure in our work-centric, meritocracy society for individuals to put work first in their life, to make it the goal and focus. “Getting aheadis a common theme and inevitably means advancing in wealth and influence in the professional sphere. Innumerable seminars, podcasts, and articles focus on this idea of professional advancement as the primary driver in our lives.

We start this mantra at a young age, asking children:

What do you want to be when you grow up???”

Of course, the expected answer is some job or career. Couldn’t the answer just as readily be: “ I want to be myself.”?

Pursuing this question carries into high school, where we tell our youth to pick a career and invest tens of thousands of dollars into it via an educational system, with limited information and exposure to that field. The question becomes expensive to answer, loaded with personal angst and social pressure.

But we can take the pressure off, both for our youth and ourselves: your friends and family don’t care what you do for a living.

They are far more interested in your priorities, time, attention, and character. A paycheck is a paycheck, whether earned from driving a truck, closing a sale, or managing a stock portfolio. It’s a means to an end. And that end is to support ourselves and others so that we can focus on our priorities and lives well-lived.

Our work can, and does, reveal who we are (in part), but it’s such a small sliver of our life that we shouldn’t give it undue weight. Each of us is far more holistic, intriguing, and nuanced in who we are; a basic description of our current occupation is quite incomplete. The people we care most about care little for how we make our living, but they do desire our attention, care, and time. And that fact is a good reminder to us of where to put each of those things daily.

Moving Forward

Do you tend to describe yourself (or others) by the work they do?

Try something different: when thinking of yourself or another, describe them based upon their priorities or character.

Originally published at https://fjwriting.com on May 27, 2020.

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