What do you do? This question can be an innocuous conversation opener or it can be fully loaded with intent to determine your status, intelligence or even character. Inquiries began when I was in elementary school with “what does your father do?”. In college, the focus moved to my post-grad plans, which big firms called me back for the coveted all day interview and what does my boyfriend do. Now, as a so-called adult, I get asked what I do during cocktails, lunch and grocery shopping.
Nine times out of ten, the question is a polite inquiry merely meant to show interest. Then, there are the times the person asking is not casually interested but truly does want to know, what do I do. I was once in the hospital visiting a family member who had been in a bad car accident. In the waiting room, the first thing out of her future mother-in-law’s mouth was “what do you do?” accompanied by a quick glance at my handbag. At my ten year high school reunion, a classmate didn’t ask me what I do because he was too busy telling me what he does. He also took the time to provide me with a quick definition of a financial statement as he assumed the former party girl couldn’t possibly do what he does.
When we spend forty, fifty and sixty hours a week at our jobs outside the home, it is easy to begin to internalize the impression our job title leaves on others and also to self-identify who we are with what we do.
For me, a meaningful minimal lifestyle means a life relatively free of ego, status and keeping up appearances. It also means a life where my self-worth is not dependent on circumstances beyond my control.
While I strive to do my job well and take pride in what I do, it is equally important that my job does not define me. Having a life outside the office filled with family time, friendships, good health and creative pursuits shouldn’t be an afterthought but a priority. My personal life should be the source of joy, not my job.
There is freedom in letting go of the importance you place on your job’s effect on your happiness. I’m not talking about the financial effect of being able to provide for yourself and your family but rather how we see ourselves when things don’t go our way. When you don’t rely on your job or co-workers to validate your worth or talent, you can focus on getting things done and be more productive. Letting go of ego also enables you to look beyond competitive behavior, gossip and office politics.
Losing a job or changing our career path in life shouldn’t make us feel as if we’ve lost our identity too. Change is easier to embrace if we’re haven’t tied our happiness to a job title or company letterhead.
Defining ourselves by our careers can also lead to consumerism as we unconsciously attempt to show the world how successful or how connected we are with luxury cars, bags and jewelry. There is nothing wrong with having an appreciation for well-made objects with good design but feeling it’s a necessary presentation because of what you do can only lead to wanting more.
The perspective that who we are is what we do can also limit our social interactions to certain circles and keep us closed off from new experiences and interests. Life is ultimately more complicated when we limit our options to fitting in with a specific tribe or community.
While our jobs or our spouse’s jobs are a huge part of our lives, how we put food on our table shouldn’t take precedence over what is truly important or determine how we feel about ourselves. It is easier to adopt a simple lifestyle when we aren’t overwhelmed with the trappings of a career that defines how we live and feel when not working.