“What do you do for a living?”
I bet if I asked how many of us have heard this question in a conversation, the majority would raise their hands.
In the quest to chase that “American Dream”, work has become such a primary part of our identities. It’s also an important element in how we perceive the identities of others. Success and climbing that social ladder has become so idealized in our society, that most of us think it’s what we need to aspire to.
We are so often defined by what we do, rather than who we are. Why has this become the norm? I feel like there are so many other interesting things about a person compared to what they do for work. What activities bring them to life? What sort of things make them belly laugh until their stomachs hurt? Why could they read about forever and never grow tired of?
It Starts Young
When we’re fresh out of diapers, people begin asking the age-old question:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
We put it on their back to school chalk-board signs each year. We ask them about it year after year to see how it’s changed.
Not who do you want to be or what kind of person will you be, but what occupation would you like to have. This instills in us early on that the job you have will be important.
Not only is this a silly question to ask a child, but I think it can also be unintentionally damaging. Often, children’s responses are met with enthusiasm, no matter how outlandish it may seem. Yet, as we grow older, these nontraditional aspirations are often met with anything but optimism.
“How will you make a career out of that?”
“That isn’t where the money is.”
“That’s more of a hobby.”
“That won’t look good on your resume.”
It’s easy for flames of passion go out when the joy is taken out of them.
In our school years, college and getting a “good job” becomes the main focus. College talk starts in middle school and you’re expected to have it all figured out before high school is completed.
Instead of prioritizing mental health, money management (at any income level), individuality, happiness, and personal fulfillment, we instead have getting into college and a good job afterward hammered into our young minds. These ideas are pushed onto us by schools, at home, and even by our peers.
Passions are encouraged…if they have an obvious path to something lucrative.
I was lucky to grow up in a household with one parent who encouraged schooling, high positions, and making lots of money, but also a parent who encouraged happiness. Still, despite that balance, I grapple with the “good job” mentality to this day. I cannot imagine growing up in a household with only the former.
A good job makes you more worthy- at least we’re led to feel that way.
What Can We Do?
The mindset of an entire society can’t change overnight, but we can make small, positive changes in our own circles. Encourage your children, your friends, hell, even your parents’ interests. Don’t tie that encouragement to the idea of a career, simply be supportive in this thing that they love. Ask about their hobbies often.
Don’t present college as the one-size-fits-all option for kids. Some people aren’t built for that path and it’s okay. Others simply don’t want the debt.
Encourage trade schools, first hand experiences doing things they love doing, working in lower-level positions because they are happier that way, and getting out to experience the world in other ways.
“I just don’t want to see them struggle”
Okay, then teach them to be wise with their money early on. Teach them that expensive things don’t equate to status or value. We can get by on a lot less than we think we can.
Ask people what they like to do outside of work. If they do happen to discuss their job, be just as enthusiastic if they work as a waitress as you would be if they were a CEO.
Other Things Matter
We are all our own wonderful and unique people. We were before we ever worked a day in our lives and we still are after we’ve clocked out for the day.
Some people may truly love what they do for a living and take great pride in putting their efforts into their job. That’s great! Those are the best jobs to have.
Others might work to make a living, but place higher value on their time outside of work. That’s great too! There are other parts to life.
Family, health, and time are all things that are more special than money made. These are all things that we can’t get back when they are gone. We will always be able to find another job or make more money.
You don’t have to climb that ladder to have a meaningful life, you don’t have to take positions you don’t want so you have a better-looking resume, you don’t have to go work in an office, you have to have a respectable title, and you don’t have to seek the job with the highest pay.
As we grow older, our heads fill up with more and more outside noise. It influences our decisions, even if we don’t always realize it.
We Are All So Much More
I think we could all benefit from channeling our childhood selves and thinking about how we approached the things we were passionate about-fearlessly, enthusiastically, without any strings attached. We did things because we loved doing them and we were better for it.
As a child, I loved writing and making videos.
As a preteen, I loved writing fanfiction and reading
As a teen, I wanted an English degree and to write a book.
As an older teen, I thought an English degree would be worthless because everyone told me it would be.
I didn’t pursue it, but I’m starting to write again.
As an adult, I was told I wasn’t using the degree I did get because I didn’t use it in the way that was expected of me.
As an adult, I was met with shock for not taking the advancement opportunities offered to me.
Now, I’m trying to make peace with the fact that I don’t want all of the things I was led to believe I should want from life.
I don’t want my job to define me.
I’m more. You’re more. We are all the sum of many parts.
Do you feel like your job defines you? What did you love to do as a child? Do you still do it today? What do you love to do now? Have you ever been talked out of a dream?