This is a common question we are either asked or ask ourselves when we first meet people. It’s a seemingly safe, small-talk type of question, however why is it that this is the first question we (as a society) ask?
I remember the first time I thought about this when I asked an individual and they responded, as if they were ashamed, that they were not employed at that time. My immediate thought was, “Oh, then what do you do?” (in a condescending tone) however after pausing for a split moment, I realized.. what’s wrong with that?
It was after encounters like this that I began recognizing more in myself and in others how often this is where most conversations begin. What I thought seemed innocent, really turns out to be a much deeper, embedded value system of the society we live in.
Having worked in the Medical Communication industry for a little over 3 years, I attained two promotions during that time and was well regarded amongst my peers and upper management. I had a Doctorate in Pharmacy and though was relatively young, was still held in high regards and looked upon for advice and insight for my division. After a journey of ups and downs in the corporate setting, I left this job to pursue an entrepreneurial journey. For the next year and a half, I attempted to create a new business model by using small businesses for social good, consulted a new online startup company and shaping its value proposition, as well as join an existing startup company learning how to manage and create culture from the bottom up.
It was throughout this journey that I’ve encountered numerous times, some out of genuine curiosity, the question of, “so what do you do?” I began to realize more and more how much our society values and identifies with what we do—that is, what is our profession, our career, our status, and of course tied closely with that an estimation of how much money we make and what kind of lifestyles we can leisurely enjoy.
During the transition times I had between each of the ventures, I really began exploring within myself how much I identified with what I did. What I initially perceived as something not as important to me, I quickly realized how much I too, am simply a product of our environment and society. During the down times when I did not have work, was at home, while the wife went off to work, feelings of insecurity and lesser self-worth started creeping in. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get a job (a well-paying job at that), but exploring this journey of entrepreneurship was more important to me. However, people around me did not understand, especially the ones that are closest to me. It was the family members who did not understand how as a man I was not providing for my family, the friends who would half jokingly make remarks that I am not doing anything with my time and my life, and of course, it was my own voice that haunted me the most, wondering, “what am I really doing with my life?”
A new perspective..
After lots of self reflection, support from my beloved wife, reading various literature, that I began to overcome this value system created by our society’s culture. I began to see more clearly how this culture took shape. It’s from childhood, that we are imposed with this belief that “we can achieve anything, the sky is the limit, just believe in yourself and you can do it” mentality. Then there are some parents (particularly the Asian American ones) who push their children to get the best grades, to take multiple extracurricular activities, who “want the best for their children,” who set expectations that only esteemed degrees such as doctors, lawyers, and high-salary bankers, are the only careers worth pursuing. Perhaps, more subtly, it is also from the pulpit that pastors preach that we are called to live “more impactful lives”, to pursue worthy lives, to never settle.
All these different facets of life from childhood, to becoming more competitive in high school to get into the best colleges, to then get the best jobs, to then take on a career that was nothing more than an illusion of satisfaction and success, has led us to identify ourselves with what we do.
Now, though of course there are positive influences and life-lessons from this type of drive, ones such as hard work, being productive, disciplined, etc., when those good character building traits are lost in the midst of simply becoming a slave to the system, we are just constantly, aimlessly working for more (more money, status, power), ultimately fueling our own self-esteem. We become nothing more than the infamous rats running the race, the mindless drones climbing an illusory ladder, knowing that what awaits us at the top is really nothing great at all.
Currently, I am not working a well paying corporate office job nor pursuing the seemingly glamorous entrepreneurial startup, but rather am learning to appreciate the finer things in life, like maximizing the time with my wife. I am learning to be content with what we have, instead of always yearning for more. I am learning to be okay with not being defined by what I do, but rather I’m defined by simply who I am. I am an individual, who doesn’t like to settle for the norm, who questions and thinks (perhaps a little too much for his own good), who loves spending time with people and certain individuals, who has a deeper relationship with God, who has a story to tell about his life. That’s who I am. I am not defined by being a pharmacist, a 6-figure salary man, an entrepreneur, or a writer. Rather, those things are just a small part of my life.
With these insights, it’s sometimes uncomfortable to ask, “What do you like to do?” or “So what kind of person are you?” but perhaps it will get people off the normal script of life and not to simply identify ourselves with what we do, but really begin to find out who we really are.