What you do and who you are

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 28, 2022, 8:46 PM | comments: 0

I really like talking to people about how work fits into their lives. I enjoy the debate involved, too. But one of the things that I find are core to the conversation, is figuring out where on this spectrum we put work relative to the definition of what we do, and how it differs from who you are.

The origins of this topic are somewhat rooted in the various American myths of work, not the least of which include the "bootstrap" myth. The worst one though is the bit about, "If you enjoy your job, you'll never work a day in your life." Like the bootstrap myth, it is implied that if you can't reach this euphoria of career bliss, it's a problem with you or your personality. I think that's all completely naïve, but actually there's something else at play. As I suggested, it's simply that who you are and what you do are not necessarily the same thing. They can be, but they don't have to be.

Not surprisingly, it was an artist that helped me really see the difference. This artist was a gifted pianist and actor at a young age, but felt the former was something they could do, but the latter was who they are. What a beautiful realization to have at such a young age. Most of us, however, are not artists, so a more practical arrangement may be necessary. There are a great many really crappy jobs, and someone has to do them. These jobs can be performed with dignity and respect, but we shouldn't expect them to define the people doing them.

I've had a lot of different jobs, and I've written about this concept in a slightly different context, where there is a spectrum of how much you care about your work. I think that spectrum runs parallel to identity to some extent, but not always. For example, when I worked in radio, it was absolutely who I was (and in retrospect, I didn't like who I was very much). When I took a half-year off to coach volleyball, that was about as deeply rooted in my identity as it gets. But for most of the technology jobs, the overlap was subtle or even non-existent. Any consulting gig was going to be transient by definition. You bill the dollars and you move on. Microsoft was kind of an identity thing, at least when I thought it was the coolest company ever. But there were also challenging jobs where I had a lot of responsibility and I cared very much about the work, but probably wouldn't dwell on it if a stranger asked me what I did for a living.

All of this to say, who you are and what you do don't have to be the same thing. Sure, it's cool if you can align the two, but let's end the cultural expectation that it has to be that way. We can't all be artists.


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