What do you do for a living? Can you boil it down to a title? Would you be comfortable with that?
I was recently asked that question three times in as many days. And I caught myself modifying my feelings about the answers I was giving. I started out pretty confidently. You know, with the practiced answer. THAT one: It’s slick. It’s rehearsed. And it reinforces whatever level of vanity and competence that you feel comfortable with, right? I mean, if not, then what’s the point? You should feel good about what you do.
[Editorial: Ok. I’ll be honest. There have been times where the disconnect between what I do for 8-12 hours a day and what I want to spend my hours on is so big that it feels better to whine and hem than to provide even a cursory REAL answer. When I hate my job, or someone I work with (Well, hate is a strong word. Let’s say have cultured a distaste), my answer rambles. Everybody has had one of THOSE jobs.]
“And all of a sudden, I was talking about making a difference, and the opportunities for change.”
And anyway, the first time in a while that someone makes you dredge up that answer, it’s like an automatic thing. I’m a pretty positive guy these days so I tend to frame my knee jerk responses based on the good things I remember/feel. So the answer is pretty upbeat. And generally brief. No real introspection required. The first time.
The next time I was asked, I paused a breath before answering. Just a breath, and still it was enough to open the door of doubt. “Oh Yeah,” I mused, “what about all that other crap?” It’s all about qualifications then; adding the downside in the interest of balance, I suppose. The long commute, the long hours, the drudgery. Perhaps that one bothersome co-worker, or the stupid corporate rule. It’s all done with a wink and a smile. A “You know how it is,” nod and that’s the end of it. I imagine that there are “universals” that you could extract here. The atomic essence of dissatisfaction. Those things that transcend job, or class, or ego. You know, the annoying co-worker; the awful boss, the stupid rules. Even when we DO like our jobs, these things remain. And more often than not, you’ve had an experience that will help you relate.
SO what happens the third time? The third time was a surprise. I found myself really thinking about what I do. Not the dogmatic inside-the-box restricted view based on an external definition or title, but the real tasks. And back up from those tasks, I tried to build a coherent vision of what it all means. What DO I do? Am I changing anything? Creating anything? What is the product of my labor? Some people have easy answers to these questions, and that’s fine. A furniture maker shouldn’t have too much soul-searching to do in order to answer that question, for example. But would craftsmen have a thing or two to add about what really drives them? Does a surgeon cha–ching after every incision? What does a manager do, really? Does a teacher have a product?
Questions like this come after, of course. In that moment, there was only wispy hints of something deeper. A long thoughtful look (that some people say makes me look like I’ve stubbed my toe). And when I finally opened my mouth to reply, what I had to say surprised me. I spoke of things bigger than my day-to-day tasks. I used words like guiding, and shaping. Words hinting at creating, at building. And all of a sudden, I was talking about making a difference, and the opportunities for change. And I can assure you that what I do for a living, by conventional definitions, is not so grand, noble, or revolutionary. Yet somehow how I think about what I do holds a grace and a power that probably says more about why I do it, and how that makes me feel, than any title or description.
It also happens to make for lousy smalltalk. Trust me.
What do you do for a living? Think about it a little. Do you like what you do? Whether you do or you don’t, do you really know why? And are you comfortable with that answer?
After all, what title could really define you?