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Your Job as Your Identity? Not For Me, Thanks

This article was written by in Best Of, Career and Work. 26 comments.


By the time I was in third grade, I knew the answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is always formed this way, with these particular words. The object of this question is to determine not the philosophy of the individual, but the type of career that is most desirable. The presence of the word “be” in the question is worth noting. From an early age, children are trained through language to associate their career with their identity. Who you are is what you do and vice versa.

The very fact that the question is asked instills the importance of a job or career.

In Across the Universe, the character Max is eating Thanksgiving dinner in the late 1960s with his family in rural Massachusetts, at which point he announces his intention to drop out of his undergraduate studies at Princeton University.

His father asks him to get serious for once: “What are you going to do with your life?” He responds rebelliously, “Why is it always what will I do? Why isn’t the issue here who I am?” His uncle chimes in, “Because what you do defines who you are.” Max responds, “Who you are defines what you do,” and asks for confirmation from his new friend Jude from Liverpool. Jude replies with a different point of view: “Surely it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.”

I loved being involved with music. I’ve known I’ve had musical talent and an enjoyment of the art since I was in kindergarten. In third grade, as I mentioned above, I knew what I wanted to be: a teacher. It should have come as no surprise to me when in high school I decided that my purpose (my being) was to become a music teacher. When I was studying in college to be a music educator, the piece of advice that stuck with me the most was uttered by a professor most likely while I was still a freshman: “If there’s any other career that would make you happy, choose that now. Continue down this path only if teaching music is the only thing that you can or want to do.”

This advice stuck with me for several reasons. First, music wasn’t my only talent or interest. I excelled in every subject at school (when I wasn’t bored). My interests ranged from computer programming to physics to languages to mathematics. I even liked history when I was learning on my own rather than within public school curriculum. The world was open to me, but I stuck with music.

Many years later, after some bad experiences, I left teaching and the arts. My current choice of a day job happened mostly by accident. I needed a job after leaving the arts, so I started as a temp in a financial company. I moved into accounting after that because the accounting department was nearby and they needed someone, and have switched jobs at the same company a few times since then. This job, which is unfortunately becoming a career, does not define who I am. It has nothing to do with the person I am, it’s only the result of a series of circumstances defined by others.

Strawberry Fields ForeverIn the arts, I was a teacher and a leader. I earned the respect of my peers by being very good at what I did. I even taught others how to be leaders. I was a great motivator. Of course! Music is something that is exciting, invigorating, and essential for the soul. The arts are necessary for modern culture. In my current career choice, being a leader is a joke. It’s a world of middle-managers and meaningless tasks. Why should I get excited about any activity that is not directly changing the world for the better in a way that satisfies the ideals that are important to me? Sure, it’s important to someone that I make sure that one department of our company pays back another department of our company for whatever expense they happened to incur. But how is that changing the world, how is this meaningful or satisfying?

So I have Consumerism Commentary. That’s more fulfilling. I write, usually nonsense like this, and reach more people than I’ve reached in any other facet of my life. For someone who has been building communities and leading smaller groups of people for almost 20 years, that is definitely cool. But Consumerism Commentary is an accident like my current job, though it is a happy accident. I don’t believe I’m changing the world, but I’m happy if I help someone get to a piece of information faster, or on the rare occasion, make someone think about something, anything they’ve taken for granted. But I don’t even use my real name, so whatever I’m building with Consumerism Commentary doesn’t exist in the “real world.”

I don’t want to be defined by my role at my day job, and without sharing my real identity online, I can’t be defined by my blogging endeavors. If I were still teaching music or involved in the arts, I would agree that who you are defines what you do. But I’m not, at least not at the moment. So I’m resigned to agreeing with Jude for now.

Image credit: ^riza^

Updated January 16, 2010 and originally published April 29, 2008. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jeremy

It was so nice to read this post. I have a very similar situation to what you described. I went to Art School and was on fire. I was at the top of my game, always dreaming up new creative ideas, leading other students to follow my direction, teaching other students, I loved it. It was a place where I could tell I belonged, a place where I grew as a person and I thought I was making the world a better place. Now, 8 years after graduation from college I am in that “Joke” of a day job that you speak of, the regular job where the pay is pretty good but where there is NO motivation, NO excitement, NO chance to thrive and become a leader, it’s so frustrating. So, like you, I am trying very hard to get things going outside of my day job, I am trying to do something that I love that will bring me a great income and won’t be filled with such drudgery. Though it’s hard it’s so very worth it. I can’t wait for the day where I will answer only to myself and create my own environment and company and quite this day job.

Thanks for your post.

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avatar Curtis

You are not alone in working merely “a job.” I long for a day of working on houses and building furniture. Of course, being a professor of Economics would be cool too. I’m 33 and still not sure exactly what I want to be when I grow up. Is that so wrong? Accounting/IT/Purchasing, they were all just jobs to pay my bills. My light for getting out of debt is to give me the oppotunity to leave those things behind and do what feels right, regardless of pay.

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avatar rich schultz

Couldn’t agree more. If I could get $400 a week drinking beer and sm0oking pot I would take it over 150,000 a year commuting to NYC and being a *&^%&^$&^%*&^*& stock brokahh.

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avatar rich schultz

I heartfully agree 100%

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avatar Heidi

I am not sure how I feel about this post, not because I don’t agree with you, but because it’s caused me to reflect on my own work and life choices.

Unlike you, I never knew what I was good at. I did well in nearly every subject in school (except algebra), took advanced placement and accelerated classes, and yet had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I played the piano and sang it the choir, but wasn’t a stand out. At 5’10″ you’d think I would be a natural basketball or volleyball player, but I was rather clumsy and awkward. I was great at debate, but didn’t know what to do with that either. I sailed through most of my undergrad and master’s coursework, but nothing ever made me feel “alive”.

So, I work a job that I very much enjoy, but is not a “passion.” I’m good at it. I have a talent for seeing the big picture and thinking strategically, and I hope that I continue to learn and grow into a formal leadership position at or another financial services firm. I care about climbing the ladder and (I’m ashamed to say) all of the politics associated with that.

I am defined, in large part, by my title and salary, and I’m ok with it, but I have to admit that the work isn’t satisfying in a way I would imagine finding a “true calling” would be. I find solace in the fact that I can use my talents and connections in my non-profit work – making a difference in my community through the agencies to which I provide leadership, and for now that has to be enough.

Hopefully, I’ll figure out “what I want to be when I grow up” somewhere along the way.

Hmm. I wonder if great business leaders always knew that they wanted to be at the helm of a firm, or if it’s the kind of thing that just happens as one tries to find their true calling?

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avatar DFH

Flexo-the results of your blog, which are probably mostly unknown to you, exist in the real world. Your words have consequences, and they contribute to the reality of our lives when we take them in and then act upon them. If we are only what we do then that leads to some scary propositions further down the road when we are aged and gray. You are right-we are what we are not because of what we do, regardless of the fact that many of us “do” jobs that just pay the bills. Even jobs that provide alot of meaning do not define us, though its such a priviledge to have that kind of job. If we allow the circumstances of our daily lives to determine how we feel about our life as a whole then those circumstances will probably send us into depression. Thanks for your blog my friend.

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avatar matty dread

I call my tech job the “modern day white collar ditch digger” job when people ask me what I do.

I work at our church watching the kids during services. That seems to define me much more in 2 hours than 40 hours during the rest of the week at my regular job.

I get outdoors a lot and play with my kid…that defines me even more.

My job is income. My skills help people, and I like helping my friends who need tech help so they don’t get ripped off, but it doesn’t define me at all.

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avatar escapee

If it makes you feel any better: I have an arts degree too and have what most people consider to be the holy grail of an arts job. It stopped being fun a long time ago. My point is that the minute that something that you do for fun becomes a full time 8 hour per day job the fun is gone, at least it is for me.

After the intense competition to be accepted into my graduate program, all of those days I spent painting and drawing, and all of the money I spent on degrees, I never once thought it would lead to sitting in front of a computer all day for 8 hours. Some mornings it’s all I can do to just drag myself in here.

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avatar Smithee ♦1,358 (Quarter)

“I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”

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avatar plonkee

I guess I don’t define myself by what I do. I have a job that I really enjoy and I couldn’t do it as a hobby. On the other hand, I get to write on my blogs and elsewhere, I play music, I don’t really think of any of these things as my labels though. I am, me.

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avatar Just Me

I am a paramedic. I think that says something about who I am. But it is certainly not all that I am. And if I decided to stop working one day and become a stay at home mom, I would still posess the same qualities I had as a working paramedic.

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avatar Lobo83

Interesting post. I am an engineer and have been for 24 years. I am also a husband (17 years) and a father (13 years). All these realities help define me and yet these realities have certainly changed over time. What I do today in those roles will certainly not happen the same way tommorrow. I totally agree with Max’s uncle that your actions (if any) define who you are. Like it or not, who you are is also defined by the actions of others made on you. Even Bill Gates is at the mercy of his customers. I think Jude got it wrong. Its not the way you do it, but that you actually do something.

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avatar Alice Cooper Stalker

I don’t feel like my identity is wrapped around career. I’ve always had many interests. I never wanted to be so bogged down and tied to my work that it got in the way of me pursuing my other interests on the outside. I also have a strong need to switch job functionalities every 2 or 3 years. I work in IS. I stay working in IS, but I learn and apply a different aspect of it. I tend to seek out larger companies where I can make internal lateral moves without having to switch jobs. I tend to feel pretty fulfilled by this. However, I’m confident that had I stuck to just one area of IS…like being a database administrator or strictly a project manager…I would have advanced my career and would have been bringing home a larger salary. Lots of people take that path and they are usually the ones that have their identity tied to their job. Interesting topic.

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avatar mbhunter

Very good post Flexo.

Another way to look at this is the difference between career and calling. Your career can enable or finance your calling, which might bring in very little income by itself but have a lot of significance.

Being a teacher is a perfect example of a calling. It carries a lot of significance (thousands of students molded by your teaching) but a relatively low salary.

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avatar Meg

Great post! That’s certainly something that’s been on my mind for some time.

I’ve also had a lot of interests and talents, which is maybe why I’ve had a hard time finding my niche until recently. I started as a jazz major (on sax), but after having to withdraw and re-enter college I ended up with a degree in classical studies (mostly focusing on Latin) and Spanish linguistics, with minors in foreign language education and linguistics. After that, I started writing online about style, fashion, saving money, and other topics that really only became interesting to me since graduating. I also started taking performance jazz and singing classes at a local college.

Because I’m working on so many different projects that are hard to describe to the non-tech savvy and maybe also because I’m a stay-at-home wife who’s not what I’d call a housewife, I have a hard time describing myself by what I do. Unfortunately for me, though that seems to be the preferred small talk when getting to know people. When I tell people, it usually ends up with, “Must be great not having to work” or “So what do you do [i.e. for a living -- as if I didn't just tell them]?”

In the end, I’m just me — and that works for me. Fortunately, my husband doesn’t really seem to care what I do, so long as it works for me (in that he does care and is very supportive). My husband loves me for me and not what I do — though he also loves and appreciates how I do stuff, too.

By the way, I’m very interested in the process of things, so that why I love the quote you mentioned from the film.

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avatar Michelle

I totally agree! As a college student looking for summer work (with no luck at this point, I might add…), I utterly dread the last day of finals and the first day of some mundane fast food/big box retailer/file, file, file in some cold basement job.

Someday, I want to write and cook and enjoy being a wife and mother in a society that has asked since I was three, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and has no time or willingness to hear something other than a career.

Thanks for letting me know that while I’m working that crappy job that has nothing to do with who I am or what I want, I’m not alone.

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avatar Laura

Great post… I too work at a job that I don’t find particularly special, and I would hate to think that people define me by what I do for a living. I want to find something that I can do that will represent me as a person… hopefully I’ll get there eventually!

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avatar Pam Grundy

My day job gets me health insurance, that’s about it, and the insurance isn’t even wonderful, but it is insurance. I try to make the best of the job but my identity? No, not at all. Life begins when I clock out.

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avatar Mr_Z3r0

for quite awhile (decades) I spent alot of time making a paycheck at just short order cooking, then at a time when I found myself 20 something, single with a baby I decided to do SOMETHING. I was tested by goodwill and was sent to a “apprenticeship recruiter” because although I didn’t have the money for a private college I was inclined for…cooking (just more than which can to open-running all aspects…etc. of a large kitchen, and the culinary arts involved with banquets). It turned out to be a blast, for years I ate, worked, studied and worked under the best- then later in life the stress involved with juggling others jobs just got to me. Literally, I had to quit. That “calling” (and that’s what I felt it was)defined who I was.
Now I work at a job I do one minute at a time. If this job goes I’ll get another one, it doesn’t matter what I do anymore, just that I get a paycheck.

Those of you who think that is a small difference in life are wrong, very wrong. Just take someone that has spent a few decades being in charge of a class and sit them down in a hard but menial labor job and see what happens to them. There is more of a difference than is dreamt of on “self-help” shows or 30 second opinions. It will make a big difference in everything from where you work to what you eat to your schedule to your choices of spouse (and this doesn’t even address what you’ll go through in the social caste system that is everywhere or how your family sees you or what you’ll do if they decide “disown” you, it’s amazing to me how important your job is to others, it can be more important than you are- or at least that’s the way it feels).

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avatar Jerry

This is a terrific post. My wife is an artist and has had many interesting jobs along the way that have never defined who she was because they are always a means to an end. She was going to be an artist and she just needed to find ways to make it happen. It’s never easy but few things in life that are worth pursuing are. She’s been in the mortgage and insurance business, delivered auto parts, waited tables and once ended up selling refi’s on the phone for a call center. All were useful to get her to where she wanted to be. I admire people who can do that and still not be bogged down by being defined by what they do.

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avatar Infidel

Your comments and feelings mirror my own. Our thoughts, as with most, have been thought of before. It was a life-altering event for me when I first read Thoreau’s essay, “Life Without Principle:
http://thoreau.eserver.org/life1.html
You can start at paragraph 3: “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.”. Indeed. How often do you ever hear that proposition these days? Instead it’s “Let us consider how to make as much money as possible” or “Let us consider how to get a good job with benefits” or “Let us consider what trash to watch on TV tonight” … “Let us consider the latest People magazine”. &etc

Summary of themes of this essay:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Without_Principle

After reading this work, my attitude changed from “career building” to “freedom acquisition”. Freedom from working at a job in order to buy junk that I don’t need (expensive houses, status-advertising automobiles), freedom from worry (“how will I pay for all this junk … I guess I’ll have to put in more hours for The Man”), freedom from ladder-climbing stress, and simply the freedom to sit back and watch, with bemused sadness, as others labor in chains for the very things that I have cast off.

One of the important things that I take from Thoreau is that the true “work” of one’s life is not work in the commonly-assumed sense of “labor for money”. That’s just one of the things that we must do, preferably in some relatively pleasant but non-life-consuming occupation, in order to provide at least a minimum of support for pursuing our true work of self-perfection. Whatever defines self-perfection for you is yours alone to decide. Perhaps it’s mastering the sax. Perhaps it’s travel and experiencing/comprehending/internalizing the cultures of the world. Perhaps, as for Thoreau, it’s immersing oneself in nature, studying it and reveling in it.
Up to you.

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avatar Ankur

I have never let a job define who I am… I think that used to befuddle a lot of my managers especially in corporate america. I was never the vanilla type, pc correct, bland individual who would blend into their mold and it would exasperate some of them.

I am who I am first and foremost… I am also a student, a writer, an artist, a baker, an amatuer gardener, a teacher, a healer, a spiritual person, a knitter, a creator of my own life. I also have so much exploring to do and so much learning that it will take me a few lifetimes to learn it all.

I think it is crazy that we expect people to choose one profession, study for it, work at it for 40 years, keep our fingers crossed for a decent pension/social security, and then retire to do the fun things we never did while we were young. I could never understand that logic and I am glad that I didn’t.

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avatar Mike

I agree with you to a point also. I was a police officer in my past days. I had bad experiences as you did with your teaching. Believe it or not, I became a cop to help people. It didn’t turn out like I thought. Now I went in to the Internet such as yourself and work daily on rewarding things to actually help people out. I work on non profit websites. You should move towards things on the net that you like better than what you are doing.

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avatar lneely

Upon reading this, I was reminded of a quote which goes something like: “If you are what you do, then when you don’t — you aren’t.”

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avatar JeffW

I did a search to find this posting. It seems such a novel concept that someone isn’t their job that I had to reword my search and take out the word ‘confuse’ before finding a match.

It seems perfectly straightforward to me that a person cannot be what they DO! If that was the case then if you didn’t do anything then you would cease to exist, or if you changed jobs you would then be a different person. It’s ridiculous! But no matter how much sense it doesn’t make or how much you try to argue the point, people will just continue asking little kids the same crap they were asked, etc.

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avatar Paul Strut

I can identify with this article. In high school I was very involved with the arts. I won several awards for art and scholarships to two private institutions. I knew I wanted to be someone doing something in the arts, but my parents only saw my future as a k-12 teacher. I attended the private institution I received the biggest ride to as an Art Education major and found out I hated it. The college students there weren’t passionate, many were there because they couldn’t get into anywhere else but their parents could foot the steep tuition bill, and the teachers weren’t passionate either. The work was too easy. Everyone was walking out with A’s, whether they showed up to class and did the work or not.

I withdrew from the institution thinking I’d pick up journalism at my new state school, but found that wasn’t working for me either. I wanted to be working in a creative environment, and it’s occurred to me on multiple occasions that I should have majored in web design or animation or graphic arts. To do that now would mean another 3-4 years of school I just don’t want to spend, for a certification/piece of paper that labels me as able to do what I already can do, in fact I even sat down with one school advisor for a graphic arts program who told me, after seeing my portfolio, that there was “nothing left to teach me,” but they could not give me credit hours for my work.

Now I’m a philosophy major (I had several pre-existing credits in philosophy and philosophy of education) just so I can finish and be done with the education system. I have no idea where to go from here, but I think it’s such a shame that many “define” individuals by their major (I had one man who works as an hiring adviser for BOCES tell me he would throw out my resume because my degree is “argumentative”), attended institutions, and later by their careers, despite the fact they are shallow, inaccurate descriptions of individuals.

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