Conversation

Is My Job = My Identity?

Working at ‘ABC Company’ meant following a strict disciplinary code. There was a rule and process for everything. Even apologizing had a code of conduct. Understandably so, my boss was from (ahem!) lets just say a regimented career and believed in running a tight ship. Words like disciplinary action, bang-bang, standard-operating-procedure were all commonplace. The real kicker was Bob himself. Talking to him reminded you of a military sergeant in action. Even when he rattled off the rare compliment, it would be in the most matter-of-fact, measured and practiced tone and choice of words. Bob never could grow out of his past and took pride in allowing it to reflect in every bit of his action.

Years later, I became the quintessential technical operations guy. Atypical of most other IT jobs, technology operations is intense, demanding and all consuming. Having been in one for ten years, it became second nature for me to sleep with my cellphone next to my pillow. I carried it to the restroom and it was within arms reach from my shower. Two years after having left the role, those habits still continue. I am Mr. TechOps even though the only computer I use today is my laptop. Worse still, I wear these after effects with pride. I still catch myself complaining about carrying the cellphone to the restroom. Even though I disguise that with frustration in my voice, I wear it like a proud badge on my arm.

Irrespective of the country or culture, when two people meet, invariably the question that pops up within the first ten minutes of meeting is ‘So, what do you do”. Translation in English would be ‘hey tell me where you work and as what, and let me figure out your net worth, your place in the world and how I need to treat you going forward’. What I do sums up the essence of who I am and my standing in the society.

More than anytime in human history, we are starting to spend more and more time in the workplace. What was once a third of the typical day, jobs now demand more than half the number of hours in a day. In jobs that require you to carry a pager or work cellphone there is no longer a clear delineation between work and life. So, when you end up spending so many hours at work, it is only natural to define your identity by what you do there.

The disease afflicts everyone. From the teacher who refuses to let go off his authoritative voice and compulsive need to correct everyone to the religious leader who always wears the holier than thou attitude to the security professional who looks at everyone with suspicion to the beauty professional who is always evaluating people for their looks we are boxed up, packaged and locked into our job definitions. Our roles are irreversibly exchanged with our persona.

An extension of this ailment, or more like a compounding factor in this equation, is the job title and its hold on my outlook towards life. The position I hold at work almost defines how I look at others and their social standing. My friends circle has to reflect my title, my chit chat is tied tightly to the standing in my workplace so on and so forth.

The prevalence of this phenomena no longer needs a justification. That your persona is a reflection of your job or title is the norm and anyone questioning that is the anomaly. It is the most asked question. And the fastest way to evaluate or weigh a person. It is the way.

That I am a doting father, loving husband, great cook, passionate gardner are all not material to the conversation or at least not as material as ‘what i do’. I am a factor of what I do for a living and my social standing, character, net worth, importance are all a function of that single element called my job.

Jobs are an important fact of life. There is no arguing the value or the indispensable nature of jobs or the fact that we cannot live without one. However, if we have to detach ourselves from the bane of defining our persona by our jobs, we have to apply conscious effort to the process and free up our minds from the illness that grips us so strongly.

The antidote to the ailment comes in a number of forms. One that is more immediate and tied closely to our conversations is the alternative set of questions to the usual ‘what do you do’. Some interesting variations of that conversation element could be any number of the following –

“Where was your last vacation and how did you enjoy it”

“What do you do in your spare time”

“Do you like to cook”

“You have an interesting license plate on your car. I am curious to know what it means”

“I see that you have children of the same age as mine. What games do they like to play”

“What kind of music do you listen to”

Or any number of questions along those lines. Getting to know the person for who they are and not for what they do or anything that ties up their being with what they do for a living. A deeper treatment for the ailment calls for a book and it is time to have one solely on that topic.

Deriving significance from our jobs has some major downsides which we will dive into at a later date. For now, consider these minor possibilities! When every bit of your persona is defined by your job, what happens when you are passed over for a promotion or cited for a minor issue at work or did not get the bonus you expected or simply laid off? How prepared will you be to deal with each of those events? The devastation, shame, isolation and depression that inevitably follows each of these events is capable of setting back any sane person so badly that it derails him or her for months on end and some irreparably so.

I am not my job. My job does not define who I am. My job and title are just a means to my overall end. They are way stops on my life journey; not my destination. I have a more colorful and interesting life outside of work. There are things that I appreciate and enjoy more than what I do for a living. Appreciate me for my fatherhood. Envy me for loving my wife so much. Ask me about the plants I grow in my garden. Ask me how I like to experiment with food.

If you are not your job, my salute to you. If you are, then time to put on your thinking cap.

Will you?

Mile wide and inch deep

That’s how shallow our conversations can get. With a copious supply of words, we fill our lives with meaningless chatter and expect them to result in lasting friendships, intimate relationships and fulfilling work lives.

Unfortunately though, communication is not the same as connecting. Nor do words get us closer to people simply because we are willing to spill them.

People are brilliant as they are and can see our words come through from a mile away. They know when we mean it, when we don’t, when it is meant to get a favor and when it is meant out of genuine affection etc. The power of the subconscious mind is in full force every time we listen to someone speak with us. And the subconscious mind goes far beyond the spoken words, and looks for the intention and truth behind the verbal and the non-verbal elements, spots the incongruency between them and alerts the conscious mind of the fakeness or realness behind the words. No matter, how good we are at faking, chances are we cannot fool the listener beyond a point.

Those random conversations with a stranger on the street, or talk about the weather are possible exceptions to the rule. On the contrary, if we would rather use your communication to cultivate true friendships and lasting relationships then the following three points will certainly help.

Speak from a place of authenticity. The compelling need to say something to fill the void in a conversation, the need to offer an opinion on a matter just because we happen to be present in the scene or the perceived need to take the side of the boss or the dominant person in the room are just a few reasons why we speak without authenticity. If we can focus on the need to speak solely on being truthful versus being right or looking good for the moment, then we stand a bigger and better chance of letting our authenticity come out and express itself. Think about it. Every conversation doesn’t have to be a competition. No one is keeping scores. There is no prize to covet for the best speech given. Why not simply be real, honest and most importantly vulnerable when speaking with your friends, loved ones, team, boss or to anyone with whom you have to live, work, play or move with? Isn’t being real more important than being right?

Letting the other person have the moment. Mary has been wanting to share her feelings about her mother’s loss with her best friend Linda. And when she finally did, the conversation started out alright. A few minutes into the conversation, it was Linda doing all the talking; consoling Mary in any number of ways, and sharing her own loss with Mary on and on. If the situation sounds familiar, it is because, it is the most natural human response. We simply presume that we have to share our opinion on the matter with the other person. We justify the need in any number of ways, and use the justification to offer advice, finish their sentences, fill in the gaps and most importantly tell our own share of stories that are similar and what we think might help in the healing process. Wrong. Mary did not come to hear Linda’s story. All Mary wanted was to share her burden and get some relief. What she did not ask in bargain was more stories in exchange. The right thing to do in this context would be to let the other person be the star. Let him/her do the talking. All they are looking for is a patient ear. Someone who will listen sympathetically. Whether you are a leader, spouse or friend, the rules of the game are the same. Let the other person be the star of their movie.

Listen to understand. The single biggest and most powerful communication tool. Listening. Easier said than done. We all listen. At least we think we do. And when we do, we do for the sole purpose of replying or answering questions. As the other person is speaking, the most natural reaction is to offer our opinion, affirm or counter the argument or simply add our reply. This puts our mind in an overdrive, often always preventing us from listening deeply and intently to what is being said. Instead, if we can simply slow down and listen only to understand the other person’s point of view then the quality of our conversations will automatically improve and most always leave the other person heard and satisfied. Any time needed to reply to the other person can be bought simply with a nod, a visual pause or an explicit request for time to think of a response and such. It is ok to be slow in your response. Again, no one is keeping score. If the other person appreciates your listening, he/she will appreciate your weighed and thoughtful response even more. So, the comfort required to listen for the sake of understanding is something that we have to get used to in our own heads and allow ourselves the permission to do that.

We all love the sound of our voices. Even those of us who say we hate it. Why else would we talk so much and throw words at people so freely and easily. Without having to give up that love, if we can practice doing it only when appropriate and necessary, then words transcend communication and enters the exquisite world of connection.

Communication is just a vehicle that we have been blessed with. Connection is the real purpose.

True for a leader. True with a spouse. And true in friendships.