How We Define Ourselves

So what do you do?

We are asked this question all the time by people we meet. We are quick to respond in the same way we always have without thinking twice about it. Of course, the implied question here is, “What do you do for work?” If you happen to be in India, the people you meet will take it one step further and try to ascertain your religion and/or caste (so they can pigeon-hole you even more) by asking your last name, as it’s often indicative (not always) of the religion you follow. I know it sounds ridiculous, but what can you do? In fact, I feel quite odd when others ask me that, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. They ask these questions so that they can put you in a box, decide where you fit on the socioeconomic strata by determining how much money you make, and judge you based on all the information you give. They do all of this unknowingly, of course. In fact, what you do is such an expansive question because we don’t do one or two things, but a multitude of things that we are passionate about. Now, I totally get the intent behind asking this question as a way to introduce ourselves to others and vice-versa. And because we haven’t given it a second thought, it’s just easier and more convenient to ask it this way, but I think it’s worth exploring.

The other thing is that we know people judge us all the time anyway, and we shouldn’t think about it because it shouldn’t matter to us. At the very least, we can do ourselves a favor by not volunteering more information than is needed or reframing it in a way that is more interesting.

Tyler Durden has aptly said in Fight Club:

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

Because we answer the What question repeatedly in the same way, we become so rooted in our work that it becomes our identity by default. The problem with this is that if you’re “successful”, then it’s easy for you to say, but what about times when you are not? We can’t rely on our work to define ourselves. In other words, our work cannot become our identity. Besides, our work is only a small part of us. It’s what we do to help others lead better lives. In any case, we are so much more than what we do. The problem comes when we start defining who we are simply from what we do for a living. Even what we do (for work) implies we are only doing one thing for our work, but that may not be the case. We may be working on multiple things at any given time based on the projects and/or passions we have. I am as guilty of asking this question as much as the next person.

Instead of asking others what they do (for work), a much better question would be to ask them what they are passionate about. I first learned about this from Joshua and Ryan. Rather than answering the “What do you do?” question by telling others about our work, reframe your response to tell them about the things you’re passionate about, and then ask them what they are passionate about.

For instance, when someone asks me this question, I respond by saying that I am a creative nonfiction writer, management consultant, free agent, tennis lover, video gamer, watch collector, and film buff, among many other things. Depending on how I feel in that moment, I might say any or some combination of these things.

First of all, this changes the trajectory of the conversation you’re having. Instead of having the same routine conversation about our work and job titles, which doesn’t say much about us anyway, we are now having a far broader and much more interesting conversation, with which we can take in multiple directions based on what we choose to talk about. Second of all, by mentioning these things about myself, I am not cutting myself short by simply telling others about what I do for “work”, because who we are is so much more than what we do (for work).

As people leading multifaceted and interesting lives, we can be passionate about many things (including work). Of course, there is nothing wrong with being passionate about our work, if that is indeed the case, but it doesn’t have to be. At least this way we are not defining ourselves simply by saying what we do. We are not cutting ourselves short. We need to unleash the identity from our work and put it back in our life where it belongs.

Even when others ask us this question, it’s up to us how we choose to answer it or reframe it in a different way in terms of our passions. So you see, it’s not necessarily others’ fault that they would ask this question, but our own because we respond in a way that we unwittingly pigeon-hole ourselves in a box. Rather than answering the question exactly the way it is asked, reframe it. Tell them what you enjoy doing and what you are passionate about, and discover the same about them as well.

When we are making good money and not having to worry about a thing, we feel better about ourselves. We have high self-esteem. When we are out of work, we may not feel so good about ourselves, so it’s apparent that we shouldn’t rely on our work to define ourselves.

We define ourselves by what we do for a living so much that it becomes our identity, but our self-worth doesn’t have to come from our work or what we do for a living (or it shouldn’t). There is more to life (and to us) than what we do for money. The problem comes when what we do for work becomes our sole identity.

It’s not the work you do that defines you. If that’s what you’re doing, you’re cutting yourself short.

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