Wednesday, 24 March 2010

What Do You Do?

Can you think of a more ubiquitous question when meeting someone new? It seems that we're driven to define ourselves by what we do for a living. I think that this is part of a powerful need to maintain a static, unchanging image of ourselves. The reality that new experience changes us all the time is too unsettling and so we search for clear definitions. I'm a lawyer, accountant, doctor etc etc. How limiting is that?!

It's also something about the western worship of money. If some of what you 'do' doesn't produce the green, well, it's basically a waste of time. "No, no Phil don't get us wrong" some well meaning acquaintances will say, "it's nice but where's the bottom line?"

I'm far from immune to this phenomena, in fact I know that much of my life has been a mad scramble to define myself in clear and unequivocal terms and prove that I can earn a living. It's only now with the little maturity that has crept up on me that I find myself rebelling against this drive. What do I do? Just once I'd love to answer, "me? Oh, I'm a gamer/blogger/writer" and stand there as they try to work out where the money is. This is followed by the delightful moment when they say, with a perplexed look on their face, "no, I meant what you do for a living?"

Tee hee, I think I'll save that one for someone heinously pretentious :)

What got me thinking about this was, once again, Wil Wheaton. He wrote a post tonight about some sage advice he received from an acting teacher. The advice was to make sure there was a space in your life to do what you do for the love of it, not just for money. And, of equal importance, not to allow yourself to be defined entirely by what you do. To find something else you're passionate about and get to it. In Wil's case what he did back then was, of course, acting and the teacher's words were geared towards that but I think it's clear from his blog that he sees this as good advice to anyone who has a creative streak or does something creative for a living.

Don't just be defined by your day job or the need to earn money, explore your depths and discover new interests and passions! Do them for the sheer joy of it. Expand your self-definition to such an extent that you lose sight of the boundary. That way when someone inevitably says "what do you do?" You can answer, with a knowing smile, "lots of stuff!"

This is a fairly rambling rant about what his post brought up for me, I hope it's of some interest.


  1. I might have to start coming up with better answers. When somebody asks what I do and I say "I'm a student," I just know that translates in their brains as 'nothing!'

  2. Don't change your answer! Revel in it, take pride in it. You're taking time out of your life to study something important and meaningful to you (I hope). Do what you have to do by all means, but keep a decent part of yourself free to explore and delve into what else inspires and moves you.

  3. I worked in Early Childhood Education for 14 years, and while I didn't make squat as far as my salary went, the real rewards came from the time I spent teaching my students. I got to go to work and act like a big goof-ball all day and got a paycheck every week for doing it, and it was awesome. Then the No Child Left Behind law got passed and it totally ruined my passion as far as my career went because we were always under scrutiny by the people who wrote the grants that supplied us with our equipment. If we didn't do everything they wanted right down to the letter, we would get threatened by the grant writers, saying they were going to cut off our funding and what-not. NCLB is the worst thing that ever happened to the state of Education in the US and I really hope that eventually someone will abolish the damned thing because me and a lot of other people were pushed out of the field because we couldn't effectively do our jobs with all of the polotics gumming up the works.

    So when people ask me what I do, I have to go through the whole process of explaining that I'm a teacher but am not active in the field anymore because of NCLB. But in all reality, during the good times I never really thought of myself as a teacher, I considered myself a student because it's your students that ultimately wind up teaching you, and that's the part I miss the most.

  4. Hi Danyiel, Even though we in the UK teaching profession don't have NCLB we still face an overwhelming degree of legislation designed to 'produce' well educated children. I teach high school which is actually tolerable, however, primary school (elementary school) is a truly horrendous teaching experience. It's about ticking boxes in a govenment written formula which, while well meaning, is actually producing some of the most ill-educated children in history. I won't be so cliched as to say I feel your pain but I do know where you're coming from.

    Here's a challenge for you, if you love to teach,and you're clearly passionate about it, why aren't you? It doesn't have to be a job or even a formal thing. Find a way to express that passion that doesn't involve the NCLB act, there must be a way. Get creative about it, it sounds like you'll have to be to escape that ridiculous piece of legislation. This is exactly what I'm blathering on about above. It doesn't have to produce the green to be a powerful force in your life.

    As for students teaching us, all I can say to that is hell yes! However, don't say you're not a teacher, rather say that you and your 'students' are all teachers.

  5. About 10 years ago, I had the honour of stage managing a production of 'Working: A Musical' which is based on a book by a US journalist named Studs Terkel (extremely comprehensive webpage here if you're keen It's basically a series of monologues (and in the musical, songs) which address just this subject - how people feel they are defined by society by what they do to make money, or the choices they have made in the name of 'success'. Some are positive, some negative, some poignant (check out Bette Midler's version of James Taylor's 'Millworker' from 1979, at the very least get to the chorus, but all are thought-provoking. Why shouldn't your work prove satisfying, even if all you're doing is sweeping floors? Surely a clean floor is satisfying?

    I gave up trying to explain what I did when I was stage-managing full time, because no-one outside the industry knows what's involved. The typical response I got was 'oh that must be interesting'. Followed by 'have you met anyone famous?' I work in financial services now, which sounds appropriately dull, but well-paid (which it is, even though my job has considerable creative elements in it, I design forms, presentations, pie charts etc), so that's deemed more socially acceptable, but I've yet to enter into a conversation, particularly in the UK, the Land of Polite Small Talk, that didn't start with 'what do you do', continue into 'why did you leave Australia' and end with 'where do you travel in from'. I think people are frightened to venture into conversations where they might offend, start a debate or upset someone and those three things are very safe topics for discussion. And they'll keep the conversation going for at least three more minutes before it lapses into uncomfortable silence.

    To quote Jane Austen's Marianne in Sense & Sensibility 'I have been too much at my ease, too happy, too frank. I have erred against every common-place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful:- had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.'

    I don't feel defined by what I do any more, though I did when I was younger and desperate to impress people. Finding old acquaintances on Facebook has proved another challenge to my socially-incurred self-disapproval, explaining why I gave up my 'theatre dream' to work in an office. Yes I work in an office. It pays for me to enjoy the rest of my life. :)


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