Work is a central, significant part of our everyday lives. Our jobs not only consume at least one-third of our day—40 hours of our week—but also play an almost exclusive role in defining who we are.
All too often what we do defines our self-identity. Think about it. When you first meet someone, the conversation often unravels in a patterned manner: “Hello, my name is [insert name]. I’m a [insert job title here] at [insert company name]. It’s nice to meet you.” When asked, “who are you?” we commonly answer with our job titles and/or a description of our work. While this tradition seems harmless on the surface, this custom begs the question: why do we have to be something?
As a society, we are far too concerned with what people do to pay the bills. The nature of the work others engage in is the first thing we want to know about them, and more often than not we judge them based on their job titles. “Oh, you’re a secretary at a doctor’s office? That’s so basic. I’m a financial coordinator at a top of the line bank. Clearly, I’m better than you.”
Naturally, the conversations we have don’t exactly unfold like this, but it certainly feels this way! If one person in the conversation is a lead manager for their company while you’re working an entry level gig to get by, you begin to feel inadequate; as if your work is less important than theirs. From that one brief answer of what we do for work, others will make conclusions about our intelligence, education, income, drive, and value to society.
Work defines status in our society.
Corporate America organizes people into a social hierarchy, which is determined by their jobs and incomes. Consider how twenty-somethings have grown up. Members of Generation-Y were trained to believe that college will open them up to worthy jobs upon graduation. Millennials work hard to earn their bachelor’s degrees, dabble in a variety of internships, and make the necessary connections to land them a prized career in post-grad adulthood. We are spoon-fed the theory that college will earn you a good job and if you fall short of that, then clearly you’re not going to climb the occupational ladder to financial success. While this mindset is rampant, is it even true anymore? Moreover, is what we do for work even that important?
We have to be something to earn a living. College is no longer the key ingredient in the recipe of success. Yes, a degree does make you qualified for more job opportunities, but it in no way guarantees you greater success over others without degrees. Sometimes a job falls in your lap when you least expect it to, and you may absolutely love it. If others do not see the value in your work, does that make you less important or valuable to society? The answer should be a unanimous “no.”
We work to pay the bills. Our paychecks afford our living quarters, groceries, the clothes on our backs, our means of transportation, and for some of us weddings, children, vacations, student loans, etc. We work to earn our livelihood. For some, this work is being a teacher, a law enforcement officer, a doctor, or mechanical engineer. For others, this work is being a photographer, writer, artist, or secretary. There’s no straight path to affording a pristine life. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the world, and therefore there’s honestly no right job title to choose.
We have to be something to earn that paycheck every week, but we don’t have to be something to be important. We, as a society, need to learn to see the value in others for who they are, not what they do. Our self-identity needs to be about our potential and qualities. Are we a good friend, father, mother, son, daughter, spouse, etc.? Are we loyal, trusting, caring, and kind? Do we treat others with respect? How do we define ourselves in regards to our goals, interests, passions, etc.? Our self-identity should be defined as who we are as individuals. What we do for work is only a piece of our lives.
A job is only one tool for a successful life. We have to be something to earn a living, but our work should never define who we are.
Here are five parting thoughts on why your work doesn’t define you:
1. Your job is only one-third of your day. That eight hour shift at work everyday may feel like it consumes your time, but if you look at the big picture work takes up, on average, one-third of your day. The rest of your time is dedicated to your life. Whether it be with children, sports, cooking classes, or school, the other two-thirds of your day is the rest of your life balance.
2. Your job is bound to change. So perhaps you’re starting off as an entry level employee at XYZ company. Chances are, you won’t be entry level forever. Your work doesn’t define you because it’s bound to change overtime. You will grow into new areas of your company and constantly evolve.
3. You may lose your job someday, but you’ll still be YOU. Unfortunately, some companies have to layoff employees due to financial hardships or a re-model of their organizational structure. If you happen to lose your job, you’ll still be who you are. Your career doesn’t define you because it won’t always be there. You will still be the same person with the same goals, interests, and passions with or without that job title.
4. Your job and your work might actually be two separate entities. For the struggling artists out there waiting for their big break, a temporary job and their passionate work might be two separate things. Your job title now might be a secretary to pay the bills in the interim. Yet, why should that define you if you’re really a part-time budding artist waiting for your breakthrough? It doesn’t and shouldn’t!
5. At the end of the day, your job is a paycheck and doesn’t define you. When all is said and done, your job is a means to generate earnings. It’s a consistent source of income that pays your bills. How could what you do to earn a living truly capture who you are as a person? You’re right. It can’t. Enough said.
Our careers and job titles do not define who we are. We often forget that the supermarket cashiers, bank tellers, and doctors are people with actual lives. They all have passions, goals, interests, hobbies, and qualities that define them, making them unique.
Everyone is more than their job title, whether it’s the most admirable career worldwide, or a temporary job that gets us by. We are all “something” but we are also “someone.” There’s a difference!