Let’s Stop Defining Ourselves By Our Careers
“Work! Till your arms get numb, till your abs get hard, till your bone’s all soft (and the moral of the story is) just work!” — Moral of the Story, Watsky
“What do you plan to do after school?”
The question begs an answer at every party, networking event, ice cream social, and first date. After graduation, the question changes. “What do you do?” becomes the new small talk mantra.
While both questions implicitly open the door for a myriad of human activity, the question only asks about one thing: career. “What do you do” means “How do you make money,” only implicitly wondering about anything else.
We are human beings, though, not machines. We have complex lives filled with much more than a simple career, yet we idealise machine-like tendencies to work more. Although some find genuine fulfillment in their work, most of us do not. Instead, we find fulfillment in our friendships, hobbies, romantic relationships, family. So why are we so obsessed with asking “What do you do?”
Besides it being an easy question which avoids asking anything too personal, it allows us to attach assumptions to the person we’re talking to. Are they a doctor? They’re probably smart. Are they a teacher? They’re probably generous. Are they a Lawyer? They’re probably morally ambiguous. Although, perhaps, a convenient method to categorize people, it attaches undue weight onto job identity and risks misattribution of characteristic traits.
What we ask each other casually, becomes much more weighty when we ask ourselves. Directed at ourselves, the question "What am I doing?" carries a lot of weight. And why wouldn’t it? We’ve constructed our work as a fundamental part of our identity, both casually and seriously. We go through four rigorous years of university (and quite possibly more) to prepare us for a higher-earning career, scabbling over internships and academic success along the way. When we get a job, we are asked to put in extra hours to get a promotion. After a promotion, we’re already looking toward the next accolade, the next big break, the next success, regardless of what it costs.
The root of this pathology, contrary to our complex needs, seems to be in our notion of success. Marian Webster’s first definition of success is “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect or fame.” Although only anecdotal, the dictionary definition shows how pervasive the thought is.
Career isn’t everything, and it won’t ever be everything. So why should we make success hinge on it? Success should be multifaceted; career can be part of it, but it should, by no means, be the absolute priority. We should reframe success more generally as “living the life which we wish.”
This definition requires that we expand what contributes to success. For example, friendships and family must actively play a role. Humans are social animals, and making time for social connection outside of work hours is critical. Friends offer companionship and comradery when the seas of life get rough; family provides a common hearth and home to return to.
We need to be able to express our own personal interests as well, regardless of career value. Certainly, a hobby is encouraged, but never to the preclusion of work. “Wasting time” should not mean “doing something we enjoy, instead of pursuing success.” Instead, it should mean “doing something one does not need to instead of pursuing fulfilment and happiness.” The former definition is narrow, tying our identity inexorably to our work and punishing us for enjoying anything more than our chosen occupation. The latter gives us the freedom to live our own unique lives.
Finally, our new definition of success necessitates balance between career and personal life. We can hardly be fulfilled if we’re perpetually burned out. Even the most motivated careerist needs time off to see family, pursue relaxing interests, and relax.
We know all this, though. We know success should be more than just a career. We know we should take care of ourselves. We know we should all live fulfilling, balanced lives, filled with friends, family, and a veritable basket of hobbies. We don’t for two reasons: one personal, one social.
The first reason is a constant appeal to the next stage of life. After high school, after university, after this promotion, after I land the dream job, then I’ll be happy. We find, however, more of the same, repeating the rat race, reaching for the next achievement. We need to be happy with our life now, because if we aren’t, further progression along the tracks we already walk, won’t change anything.
The second reason is a bit more pernicious and difficult to solve: the next person is always willing to do a bit more than you for their career. They’ll always stay a bit later than you, work a bit harder than you, and if you don’t do the same, you’ll get passed up for the promotion with a pay raise and two extra vacation days. In our effort to get the promotion, though, we work far more than a pay raise or vacation days compensate us.
We can fix success. We can each realize what is important to us and make that the center of our success. Should that be single-mindedly a career or a cause, so be it, we’ll work ‘till the cows come home. If we realize, though, that we may split our attention amongst all things important to us, never ascend to the highest echelons of prestige, and still be successful, then we become successful. Not only that, we begin to live the complex, fulfilling and wonderful lives we are designed to live. What we “do” becomes the entirety of our activity rather than a narrow slice of who we are. We might even get a better workplace in the process, defined by a myriad of human successes, rather than simple hierarchy.
So, what do you want to do after school?
Illustration: Liza Vasilyeva