What you do all day ≠ what you bring to the world
When I was a kid I absolutely loved Richard Scarry’s book What Do People Do All Day. But alas, I grew up and now questions like “What do you do all day?”, “What do you do for a living?”, “What do you do for work?”, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or what is more often the case nowadays “What have you become as a grown-up?” are one of my Achilles heels. Even when I’ve had normal, run of the mill jobs, I’ve always stumbled over my words when trying to answer them and have yet to find a stock answer that I can stand behind. Of course, being in the process of trying to chart a new course only compounds my inability to answer and then there’s the extra joy of being asked by potential dates these questions, which throws a whole new wrench in the system.
Here’s why I’ve struggled, particularly in recent times with these questions…first and foremost my work in recent years has been murky in its definition, day to day responsibilities, and impact. I, like many people, have done work for a while now that has no tangible outcome. At the end of my work days I could not point to a product and say “I made that” or “I improved that” or “holy cow, that did not turn out how I wanted, but I’ll try again tomorrow”. At the end of most of my work days I couldn’t point to specific people I had helped or new ideas I’d helped create. In truth, I sent a lot of emails, read a lot of emails, and went to a number of meetings that could have happened over email. I also helped create and facilitate projects, events, and trainings and worked on behalf of students as their transitioned to college but explaining that as what I do for a living seems incredibly incomplete, which brings me to a much bigger struggle I have with these questions.
Why oh why is so much of our individual identity wrapped up in our forms of employment and at times lack thereof? Why do we assume that what someone does for a living (how they fit in the capitalist economic system) is such a close reflection to their values, personality, work ethic, and passions. Yes, some people have been able to intertwine these holistic, authentic elements of their lives into how they make their daily bread, but from my experience it isn’t as many as we think or are being programmed to believe. The notion that we can all “do what we love and love what we do” makes for a nice T-shirt slogan but who is going to love making 100 of those T-shirts a day? More often than not, I hear people talking about how their jobs prevent them from living out some of their values (self-care anyone, anyone?), keep them from being their authentic selves, and don’t allow them enough time (and sometime money) to engage in their passions. So I struggle with these questions because deep down I think they are a misguided attempt to get to know me. They are formed by a misguided connection between my contributions measured in take-home pay and the ways in which I spend the rest of my time and contribute to my friends, family, communities, and self.
Another stumbling block occurs specifically when these questions come from a potential date. Let me start by saying that my decision to leave my previous job and move to Portland was partially due to a desire to have a greater number of people to go on dates with and ideally a greater shot at finding a long-term partner. Being part of a loving, caring partnership and having a family are elements of live that I’ve come to realize hold a lot of value for me and while I can’t guarantee that they will happen, I needed to do something to give me greater odds. So my decision to become semi-retired/under-employed is directly connected to my desire to go on more dates and in going on more dates, I have to answer the torturous questions above. Ah, what a tangled web we weave! And the weave is more tangled because while the questions are misguided in the ways mentioned above, they are also tied to a strong, socially ingrained way of deciding whether or not someone is a good life partner. Marriage and partnership were created as a way to increase financial security and therefore wondering if a potential partner’s jobs and other income opportunities will provide that security is not without some merit. Of course asking someone how much money they have saved for retirement, or if they own property or their car, or how much school and credit card debt they have is off limits during those crucial first dates. So asking potential dates about what they do for a living or what they plan to do provides a socially acceptable, albeit incomplete picture for what we are hoping to learn.
So where do I go from here? Where do any of us go? What questions can we ask that actually help us learn what we want to know from our friends, family members, potential romantic partners? Suggestions welcome, continued reflections definitely coming in the near future.