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.