Most of us don’t love our jobs, so why do we start every new conversation with the question, “What do you do?”
Why do we place the focus of our first interaction on work and job titles? Is your job really the most important thing about you?
American culture emphasizes work, but this can create unexpected impacts on our psyches. It can force us to view our contributions to the world through a narrow lens. When we emphasize our careers we forget to ask ourselves what value we provide beyond the 9-to-5.
The Weight Of Our Answers
What do you do?
It’s a common question; a standard way to greet someone you’ve never met before. I know some people despise this icebreaker, but a decade ago I loved to hear those words.
“I’m a software engineer,” I used to say, though my answers differed slightly depending on the age of the inquisitor. “I create websites”, “program computers” and “write code” were also common answers.
I enjoy telling people about my prior career. In fact, I still tell people about my unusual path into computer programming. It’s not every day you meet an English major who became a software engineer. I walk through the details of my past even though I graduated twenty years ago and haven’t written a lick of code for nearly eight years.
The Value of Job Titles
Those details are an important part of who I am, who I was and maybe even who I want to be. I suppose I don’t “do” anything in the professional sense anymore, which makes it rather tough to answer the question now. Ask me today and I’ll typically say, “I stay home with my kids.”
My old job title said, “I’m smart. I can solve problems. I enjoy working on new challenges.” Saying “I’m a stay-at-home mom” doesn’t provide that same impression. Sometimes I tack on my old job title for safekeeping. “I used to write code,” I’ll say or “I worked as a software engineer before my kids were born.” I hear plenty of retirees who do the same thing.
What Do You Do?
“What do you do?” It seems like such a simple question, but it’s really not. Someone once told me blue-collar workers rarely ask one another that question and people in other countries think it’s rude.
Does the question serve as a means to rank and measure a perfect stranger or is it just an innocuous question we ask when we don’t know what else to say?
I think it depends on who is asking and why they want to know. I like to provide the impressive answer; the ‘smart’ job title, so strangers know that I’m intelligent and capable. Reading that sentence sounds ridiculous, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
I willingly downplay my current role as a stay-at-home parent, because many people don’t see the value in what I do. Oh that’s some real honesty right there. It’s hard not to use the yardsticks of others when measuring my own worth.
Self-Worth and Salary
Throughout my working career and even after leaving the workforce I tied my worth to my job title and salary. For years I focused on how much I could accumulate, how high my salary could rise and how many bonuses I could secure. I worked tirelessly to complete my self-assessments and to prove my worth to my boss year after year.
My rewards came in the form of big raises. It’s really no different from a student who earns good grades. When I studied and applied myself I earned straight A’s. When I put in my best effort I received more money.
But before long I became trapped by my mindset. Those monetary rewards became the basis of my self-confidence and pride. I began to measure my self-worth on a distorted financial scale.
In fact, my self-worth became entangled with my salary. When I left the 9-to-5 I struggled with the idea that paychecks would no longer define me.
How do you measure your self-worth? I’ve used different measuring sticks throughout my lifetime. In the sixth grade I measured myself on the scale of popularity.
I asked my mom to buy me brand name clothes so I could walk the halls with the pretty girls. My self-worth rose as more cool kids befriended me.
Social circles aren’t the only means by which we measure ourselves. Appearance, net worth, achievements, relationships, money, physical fitness, money and careers are all common methods.
Thankfully, I didn’t use popularity as a scale for very long. By the time I reached high school I no longer cared about being part of a large social circle.
Popularity was important. Then it wasn’t. The same thing can happen with our jobs or our money. One day we earn money. One day we won’t. Sometimes that is within our control and sometimes it isn’t.
The true definition of self-worth shouldn’t involve money. It shouldn’t include how much we earn, how high our salaries can rise or how many bonuses we can secure in a year.
Instead we should create a new scale that includes the qualities and behaviors that matter to us. You know the ones that make us good people and decent members of society. Mine would look a little something like this:
- Being honest and trustworthy.
- Demonstrating empathy and compassion.
- Working hard.
- Helping others find happiness.
- Being joyful.
- Constantly learning.
- Showing gratitude.
- Displaying vulnerability.
- Showering others with love.
What is important to you? Do you know your worth beyond your job title and money? If you aren’t sure ask yourself:
- What are you passionate about?
- What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said about you?
- How would others describe you?
- What fulfills you?
- What brings you joy?
- How do others see you?
- What was the last kind thing you did?
- What abilities do you have?
- Where and how do you excel?
In the world of personal finance we spend a ridiculous amount of time calculating our net worth. We meticulously write down how much we spend, save, invest and earn. Over time it’s easy to allow these measures to taint our self-worth.
But net worth does not equal self-worth. In the quest for more money we should not allow ourselves to confuse the two.
What value do we provide beyond money? Let’s spend a small fraction of our time thinking through this question. Then forget about our salaries and jobs. Let’s pay attention to the things that truly matter and hopefully commend ourselves on a life well lived.
Questions to Replace “What Do You Do?”
Let’s stop asking “what do you do” when we meet someone new. Instead let’s ask:
- What do you do for fun?
- What do you like to do?
- Where would you like to visit?
- What are you passionate about?
- What are you excited about?
- What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
- What made you laugh recently?
- Do you have any interesting hobbies?
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
- What’s your plan for the zombie apocalypse?
There’s nothing wrong with asking someone what they do, but it doesn’t have to be the first thing we talk about. Let’s discuss the activities and passions that bring us joy and fulfillment. Let’s recognize that we bring many contributions to our lives, families, neighbors and communities outside of the 9-to-5.
Know Your Worth
You won’t work forever, so how will you define your self-worth after you leave your job? Let’s replace the question “what do you do” with “what do you like to do.” Isn’t that question more important anyway.