‘What do you do?’: How Work Hijacks Identity – An Essay by Chelsea Glincman

Sitting at a table at the most popular arepa spot in the East Village, I fidgeted nervously in my seat. First dates are always gauche, especially when a dating app is the facilitator. Before my discomfort manifested itself in a remarkably unfunny dad-joke, he broke the silence.

“So Chelsea, what do you do?”

I paused.

It is a question I surely expected to face and yet it somehow threw me for a loop. I knew, of course, that he was referring to what I do for work. I knew, innately. Answering this question used to be much easier before I was let go from my job. Just a month ago, a simple, “I’m a Community Manager for a startup” would satisfy the inquirer and keep the conversation moving. It wasn’t so cut and dry for me anymore, so I felt compelled to recount my complete employment history.

I proceeded to spew realities that were so distant from what I actually do that I didn’t take a moment to consider maybe there was another way to respond to his incredibly vague and yet somehow pointed question.

I half-recovered from my pointless diatribe but I couldn’t keep myself from revisiting his intimidating question. What is it that I do?

-I am a devoted daughter and sister.
-I am someone who values travel and worldliness.
-I am sarcastic and cynical.
-I am a loyal friend.
-I am a writer.
-I am a competitive athlete.
-I am a bagel fanatic.
-I am a lover of philosophy.

The list goes on…

And despite all of these things that I do, I had decided to define myself by something that I don’t do: work. I could have given him a meaningful answer that adequately addressed his question and gave him insight into my character. Instead, I opt for “I’m in between jobs”. Negative space. Inconsequential information.

It is no secret that we generally choose to define ourselves by our careers. Let me first say: I am not passing judgment on this phenomenon. The identity parallel between career title and interpretation of self can be utterly revealing and apropos in some cases. I venture to assume, though, that having a job directly reflective of who you are as a person is the exception to the rule.

I approached my friends in an effort to gain some insight into this phenomenon and they all gave the same explanation–work is our first response because it’s simply where we spend most of our time. I thought about this: we do spend a lot of time earning a living, stressing about irritable bosses, pushing to make deadlines–but there is just something about the time excuse that I’m not buying. I don’t tell people my job description because I spend all of my time there; I do it because it is easy.

Using a title that has been given to me to define myself is entirely defensive. It is easy to look in the mirror and say: I am an Account Manager. It is conversely very difficult to look in the mirror and say: I am a loyal friend, empowered woman, and commitment-phobe. By defining myself as my job, I avoid having to express truths that feel personal and in some ways intrusive.

***

I would like to make it clear that this is a very American experience. In the US, we are consumed by a culture driven by ostentation and competition. Answering the question of what you do for work inherently evokes a conversation of status. What we are really looking to know is, where in this society do you fall? And herein lies a deeper problem. In both asking the question and offering an answer that is work-related, our minds are flooded with a cascade of assumptions.

You work in finance in NYC. Translation: You have at least a Bachelor’s degree, meaning you were able to afford college tuition, and you currently make enough to buy $20 glasses of wine at happy hour. Few people are passionate about the intricacies of financial planning and so you likely entered the field with the intention and motivation of accumulating wealth.

You are an artist in Portland, OR. Translation: You’re a left-brained creative who is most likely struggling to make rent payments. You socially associate with people who shop exclusively at consignment stores and refuse to use animal products, and you frequent dive bars on the weekend.

These of course are not necessarily–or even likely–true, and this is the crux of the work-identification problem. Imagine how different your first impression would be if the introductory question an acquaintance posed was “What is your greatest passion?” or “What makes you feel most alive?”.

***

I took a strict departure from my true identity once I entered college. In high school, I constantly questioned who I was and where I fit in, as every choker and Vans-wearing, angst-y teenage girl does. However, in this uncertainty I found comfort in a grounding knowledge of true self. My activities, friends, social experiences, and academic interests were always in flux and yet my sense of core identity remained steadfast. We don’t have a career in high school, just interests, and having just one is unacceptable–no one wants to just be the athlete, or the intellectual, or the popular kid. We strive for a diversification of identity, an expansion of what we know and align with, and for some reason we abandon this search as we move closer to a career. We chip away at our peripheral associations until we think we have reached a concrete, central character: our job title.

Once I got to college I happily fell into the small and at times limiting world of being a collegiate athlete. I socialized with other athletes, wore what athletes are expected to wear, and acted the way athletes typically act. I zoomed in on this miniscule part of my identity and amplified it because it offered me consistency. In essence what I had done, however, was tie myself to the mast of a sinking ship. I knew my athletic career would end, and I would be left drowning without my safe, singular self-identification; yet I clung to it anyway. After college, I was left on the ocean floor, still tied to my ship and unable to discern the answer to the question,“what do you do”.

Desperate for change and hopefully some self-clarity, I moved to South Africa where I had the unique experience of being given a titled identity that felt all-inclusive: expatriate. I no longer had a performative identity and was always prepared to let people know who I was rather than what I did. New friends in Johannesburg were uninterested in what I did for work and more interested in what led me to both the physical and emotional place I found myself in. “What do you do” instead became “What brings you halfway around the world”, and the answer to that question happened to be a reflection of exactly who I was. I was someone seeking life experience, eager to learn about how other people live, actively shifting the focus of my character away from my daily habits and towards the things I was most passionate about.

I came back to the US and within weeks began to lose sight of the sense of self I had built when living abroad. I baulked at questions of work and felt resistant to letting people know what I did to make money. It all felt remarkably secondary to me. I constantly wondered why this inextricable link between work and self felt so burdensome. Amidst all of this floundering and internal turmoil, I finally reached the following conclusion:

We measure our worth by our identity, so you can do the math here: if our identity is our job, then our job determines our worth. The amorphous, absurd routine of walking through the doors to an office daily is powerful enough to determine our personal value. Sound like a slippery slope? It is.

When you use your work to define who you are, you turn to it for consistent positive reinforcement. It becomes like a drug–one hit of a great performance review or promotion and we are lifted. Once the high wears off, we are desperate for our next fix, so we put it in the time, energy, and emotion needed to get that dopamine again. Just like a drug, our tolerance increases and we require more work, more bonuses, more compliments to get the same high. We end up needing to have a successful career in order to know who we are and what we are worth.

I’m determined to break that seemingly indomitable association. Some call the career identity uniquely millennial but I call it humanly important. Seek out your character. Trim the fat away from your true self. Love your work but love yourself more. When the time comes to clock out, your identity has nothing to do with liking your job and everything to do with knowing yourself.

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1 Comment

  1. This issue of how we identify ourselves is universal. The labels we choose to give ourselves are sometimes defined by our culture or situation within our society. I don’t work – I am broke; but, am not broken.
    When I get asked this question; “what do I do”? I usually pause and like you speak about what I have done, what I would like to do and sometimes lie. If I give a more honest or creative answer I am usually met with an indignant look of curiosity and I often do then need to explain and bring it back to the recognisable frame of reference of Work.
    Oddly, people are less concerned with labels assigned by job are reduced when people learn I have a disability. When people learn I have a disability they no longer try to label me with a job title that fits into their narrow view of the world, they now feel relaxed – while I do not have a job to help define me I do have a convenient label that fits into their world view and understanding and it is acceptable that I don’t work, or don’t have a job.
    — “oh, so you are blind; that must be tough, no wonder you haven’t got a job’.

    Like

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