“So, what do you do?”
It’s often one of the first questions we are asked when meeting someone new, and how we answer it can actually reveal quite a lot about us. Are we proud of what we do? Excited to talk about it? Or, are we more reluctant to share? For some, the question might be a welcome invitation, while for others, it might prompt thoughts of comparison and feelings of inadequacy.
Whatever the case, we must examine how much our jobs really reveal about ourselves. And how important is our choice of work?
As a kid, I dreamt of becoming an interior designer when I grew up (in large part due to watching Trading Spaces, I’m sure). I imagined sitting in a chic office putting together picture-perfect mood boards, traveling the globe for inspiration and antiques, and directing project installations and photo shoots that would no doubt end up on the pages of Architectural Digest. I was creative, detail-oriented, and design-driven, so it seemed like it would be a natural fit — an extension of self even.
As a teen, however, I opted to attend a liberal arts college and pursue a career in journalism instead. I had learned that interior design is not quite as glamorous as it can seem (go figure), and it no longer felt like the right path for me. Even so, I still sometimes romanticize the idea of a creative career and question if I made the wrong choice.
For the most part, I love what I do, but in a culture wherein our jobs often define us and we are evaluated and sized up based on our work rather than our intrinsic selves, it’s almost impossible not to obsess over what we “do” with our lives.
I mean, don’t we all sometimes compare our careers to others’ and wonder if our work is fulfilling enough, lucrative enough, honorable enough? With the advent of social media and the “personal brand” in particular, the societal pressure to pursue our passions and live out our dreams is greater than ever. We are expected to find a unique niche and tailor it to our personal goals — and to be successful above all else.
But sometimes a job is just a job. At the end of the week, it’s not who we are, and it doesn’t have to live up to a childhood dream in order to be fulfilling. Although our job titles might let others know what we’re passionate about, it doesn’t define us — because in the end, our identities are found in so much more than our professions. We are not the sum of our performance or ambitions, but rather the sum of how we live from moment to moment — how we love the people around us, act out our beliefs, and handle adversities.
So does that mean our work isn’t important to who we are? Of course not. It can be hard to recognize at times (e.g. when we’re slogging through hundreds of emails and sitting through redundant meetings), but at its best, work is a means to fulfill our calling to create and use our gifts and strengths, and is the setting for rich personal growth in our lives.
Regardless of our job description — whether we head a successful startup or find ourselves at the bottom of the “totem pole” — our work allows us to support ourselves, develop our talents, relate to others, live out our values, and connect with something bigger. And those are no small things!
No, I didn’t become an interior designer, and sometimes being a writer doesn’t feel like a “dream job,” but I’m able to recognize that it allows me to make a living, to use specific talents for the good of others, and to learn new things I wouldn’t otherwise. When I reflect on it, it’s more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. Our jobs don’t need to be meaningful in themselves in order for us to find meaning in our experience of them.
That said, the next time we find ourselves reflecting on our careers, let’s take a moment to be grateful for the things we’re able to accomplish through our work and our gifts — and then remember those things the next time we’re asked to share what we do. It’s such a simple question, but it has a multitude of possible answers. In the end, it’s about more than how we make a living; it’s about how we make a life.
Amy Cummins is a writer and marketing professional based in Los Angeles. She is passionate about creating meaningful dialogue and empowering others through her writing, which has been featured on The Huffington Post, Darling Magazine, and POPSUGAR, among other blogs and websites. You can connect with her on Instagram and her website.