When meeting a new person for the first time, one of our first (and often *the* first) questions is “What do you do?” If you think about it, the question is somewhat of a euphemism; what is really being asked is, “What is your job?” Once we have an answer we tend to form a pretty conclusive picture about who the person is. Imagine meeting three middle-aged men at a party and asking each “What do you do?” Now imagine your response at hearing each of the following replies in turn:
“I’m a construction worker.”
“I’m a neurosurgeon.”
“I’m a Wal-Mart greeter.”
Whether it is a good idea or not, we tend to form very definitive judgements about a person’s worth based on their occupation. Even worse, we tend to form definitive judgements about *ourselves* based on the same criteria.
Consider the same three middle-aged men who decide to answer our question in more detail and from a different point of view:
“I love dogs. My favorite breed is the husky; I grew up in Alaska and my dad bred huskies. I own four huskies and next spring I plan to start breeding them myself. Huskies are working dogs; they need a lot of physical exercise, so I’ve recently begun dog sledding. In fact, this winter I’m travelling with my dogs to Norway to compete in the Pavsik Trail, a 500km dogsled race. Next year we’re going to compete in the Yukon Quest, a 1,500km race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse. Oh, and I work construction during the day to pay the bills.”
“Before anything else, I’m a father. I have three kids, but it’s the youngest who gets most of my attention right now. He’s fifteen, and very troubled. Truth be told, he was recently diagnosed with severe depression, and has already made two suicide attempts. My wife was killed in a car accident three years ago, and my son’s psychotherapist thinks that may be a contributing factor to his condition. I’m scared, and I don’t really know what to do. It’s at the point where we’re considering some pretty serious measures, including long-term institutionalization and possibly electroconvulsive therapy. I love my son more than anything; I love him so much it tears me apart to see him going through this. I’m a neurosurgeon and the work is stressful and the hours are far too long; I’m cutting down on my workload to spend more time with my son.”
“The most important thing in my life right now is my volunteer work at Project Restoration, a community program that helps seniors improve cognitive abilities, such as short-term memory, pattern recognition, and abstract reasoning. We go into nursing homes, retirement communities, and residential care facilities and work one-on-one with the residents on a whole range of activities which includes games and puzzles. Some of the people I work with are relatively healthy, while others are in various stages of dementia. I would love to do it full-time and for pay, but there are no positions and even if there were, I don’t have any formal training in nursing, psychology, or physiotherapy. But I recently cut back my working hours so that I can spend more time with the project. Where do I work? Oh, that. I’m a Wal-Mart greeter.”
A person could look at these three responses and dismiss them as contrived. And of course they are contrived, as are all hypothetical scenarios. The point is not the degree of contrivance but the verisimilitude. Which is to say, these responses may be contrived, but they are also believable and, I hope, thought provoking. The point I am trying to make is simply that each human being is more than a worker. There is more to most of us than our career, and in some cases one’s career is the least significant thing about defining who they are.
In Status Anxiety (2004) Alain de Botton sums up this idea far more eloquently than I could. Consider the following passage which I will quote in its entirety:
“In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), we meet Samad, a middle-aged Bangladeshi employed as a waiter in an Indian restaurant in London. He is treated roughly by his superiors, works until three in the morning and has to wait upon coarse customers who magnanimously reward him with fifteen-pence tips. Samad dreams of somehow recovering his dignity, of escaping the material and psychological consequences of his status. He longs to alert others to the riches that lie buried within him, unsuspected by patrons who barely look up when he takes their orders (“Go Bye Ello Sag, please” and “Chicken Jail Fret Se wiv Chips, fanks”). He imagines wearing a sign around his neck, a white placard that would read, in letters large enough for the whole world to see:
I AM NOT A WAITER. I HAVE BEEN A STUDENT, A SCIENTIST, A SOLDIER, MY WIFE IS CALLED ASLANA, WE LIVE IN EAST LONDON BUT WE WOULD LIKE TO MOVE NORTH. I AM A MUSLIM BUT ALLAH HAS FORSAKEN ME OR I HAVE FORSAKEN ALLAH, I’M NOT SURE. I HAVE A FRIEND–ARCHIE–AND OTHERS. I AM FORTY-NINE BUT WOMEN STILL TURN IN THE STREET. SOMETIMES.” (Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety)
Perhaps, if our hypothetical three middle-aged men wore similar signs, they would look something like this:
I AM NOT A CONSTRUCTION WORKER. I AM A DOG SLEDDER AND BREEDER OF HUSKIES. I LOVE THE STRENGTH, BEAUTY, AND DIGNITY OF THESE ANIMALS AND I FEEL MOST ALIVE WHEN RACING ACROSS THE ICY TUNDRA ON A COLD SATURDAY MORNING AS THE DOGS’ POWERFUL FEET CRUSH THROUGH THE SNOW AND HOT BREATH STEAMS FROM THEIR MOUTHS. THE WORLD MAKES COMPLETE SENSE TO ME WHEN I SIT WITH THE DOGS AT THE END OF A HARD RUN AS I SIP COFFEE FROM MY THERMOS AND THEY STARE AT ME WITH PIERCING BLUE EYES AS IF THEY KNOW AN IMPORTANT SECRET THAT I AM NOT YET PRIVY TO.
I AM NOT A NEUROSURGEON. I AM A GRIEVING WIDOWER AND A DESPERATE FATHER. MY WIFE DIED THREE YEARS AGO BUT I STILL CANNOT EVEN LOOK AT ANOTHER WOMAN WITH ANYTHING APPROXIMATING DESIRE AND AT NIGHT I STILL FIND MYSELF FEELING FOR HER IN THE BED AS I FALL ASLEEP. MY SON HAS A DEVASTATING MENTAL ILLNESS AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WOULD DO IF I LOST HIM. I WOULD GLADLY TRADE EVERYTHING–ALL MY MONEY, STATUS, AND YEARS OF EDUCATION–TO SEE HIM HEALED, HAPPY, WHOLE.
I AM NOT A WAL-MART GREETER. I AM A MAN WHO LOVES TO HELP THE ELDERLY FIGHT AGAINST THE LOSS OF THEIR MINDS. THE DECLINE IS NOT INEVITABLE. THE MIND IS LIKE A MUSCLE AND IS NOT DOOMED TO ATROPHY. MY WORK SEEMS TRIVIAL–A GAME OF CHESS, A CROSSWORD PUZZLE, A CONVERSATION–BUT MY PURPOSE IS NOT. I WANT TO DO WHATEVER I CAN TO HELP THESE PEOPLE PRESERVE AND PROTECT THEIR MEMORY, THEIR DIGNITY, THEIR HUMANITY.
To some extent we are helpless to influence what others value and how they choose to impose those values on us through their assessment of the worth of what we do. Yet we do not have to see ourselves from the same point of view.
Perhaps a better question than “What do you do for a living?” is “What matters most to you?”