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Do Our Jobs Define Us?

Question for you…when someone asks you what do you do, how do you answer?

Question for you…when someone asks you what do you do, how do you answer?

Is it a succinct spiel that you have given on multiple occasions, often with hints of repetition. Or do you struggle to give a consistent answer, mixing it up every time?

The reason for the question, is that I’ve been pondering the answer more and more recently. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are increasingly being defined by the jobs we do. Impressions are being pre-conceived based on our responses and not based on our personalities which confuses me.

What’s the basis of this quandary, you ask?

Well the easiest way to explain is with example answers to the original question!

So, putting yourself in a recent situation whereby you’ve been asked “what do you do?”, which one of these 2 answers are you likely to find yourself saying:

  • “I work for XXX company in their YYY department and do ZZZ for senior management.”
  • “I like riding my bicycle, being in the outdoors and helping people solve problems.”

Obviously, the answers will be specific to you, but can you see the subtle but important difference?

One answer states that you are part of a company in a particular position and quite frankly, doesn’t answer the question.

The 2ndanswer shows the things that you like doing. Which in this example, is a better answer to the question being asked. That said, it doesn’t say what you do for a job…but that wasn’t asked either!

The point I’m trying to make is that we fall into a trap.

The trap of trying to put people in boxes.Not literally of course, but the proverbial box. The box which makes it easier to understand what you do.

Recruitment consultants do this all the time. So does almost everyone at a networking event.

I must admit it’s efficient, but I think this approach is fundamentally flawed. Not only do we, generally, answer a question which has not been asked, but we don’t actually get to know the person, rather the job title.

Let’s take a step back…

It is important to look at the contributing factors as to why this question arises in the first place.

From an early age, we are encouraged to follow traditional career routes: study hard, get a good job, get a better job, get an even better job, retire, die.

The legal profession, for example, has a visible and structured approach to career development. As have other vocations including the emergency services, teaching, accountancy to name a few.

The introduction of generational change means the career playing field has changed. The ‘job for life’ mantra has long since gone, with a growing trend for regular job changes and the introduction of portfolio careers.

For those of us who have portfolio careers and fall into the generalist bucket, I would say it’s difficult to be defined by our jobs.This is can be attributed to having multiple jobs, but I believe it’s more than that.

It’s a challenge to the societal norm.

The reason for writing this article is that the world is evolving, with more and more people shunning the traditional career routes. The result is often a portfolio career, with a focus on work/life balance or doing work you love.

With the growth of gig / freelance / contractor market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to answer this seemingly straight forward question [“what do you do?”].

I know this is true, because it happens to me.

My parents and friends have all, at one time or another, asked “so what is it you actually do?”

This does make me chuckle because it means I can’t be put in a box.

Why is this?

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that it’s due to undertaking a variety of roles and learning principles. As such, I’d rather be known for my approach than by a title. But it does make it difficult to explain what I do.

Let me map out my dilemma: to date, I have been fortunate to work across a number of industries including:

  • financial services, construction, media, technology and travel. 

Throw into the mix that I have:

  • trained as an accountant, worked in external audit, been part of large scale finance transformations, become a management consultant, currently training as an executive life coach and started my own business.

But what I do is:

  • help solve problems, refine processes, motivate & inspire, take people on a journey, provide thought leadership and look to bring in innovation wherever possible.  

With all this said, if I asked you the original question, how would you respond?

It’s not easy, is it.

The simple fact of the matter, is the last paragraph has the greatest weight in my mind. The ability to take these principles and apply them to any scenario, is one of my greatest strengths.

But how do I best articulate this to others when talking to them or seeking a new role / opportunity?

With difficulty is the answer.

And the predominant reason for this difficulty is that my job doesn’t define me. Quite the opposite.I’ve worked hard not to be put in one box, but boy, has it made life difficult at times.

It would have been much easier to train as an accountant, go into a financial reporting role, work hard to become a Financial Director and hopefully go on to become a CFO. In essence, a more established route. Subsequently answering the question of ‘what do you do?’ then would be much easier.

But even so, I would hope that being a financial leader didn’t define me.

We all have traits and characteristics which make us individual, and I think sometimes we lose that. When meeting new people at networking events or gatherings, I really try hard not to use the, “so, what do you do?” question.

It is a necessary evil at times.

That said, I would rather know more about the person in front of me than the job title or the company you work for. By getting to know “you”, I will be able to ascertain far more about how you operate, your approach and attitudes, which in turn, lead to a greater relationship.

As I write this, I wonder whether I have a natural allergic reaction to conformity or don’t like being controlled. But I honestly don’t think that is the reason.

I’m fast coming to the conclusion, that it’s just a habit we have all been conditioned to. I don’t know who started it, but it goes something like this:

  • Meet someone new (at networking, business meeting etc)
  • Ask what they do (be conditioned to listen for the job title, company name etc).
  • Form an opinion (good, bad, indifferent based on preconceived ideas)
  • Take an action (to pursue the working relationship, say thanks but no thanks etc).

My overwhelming feeling is that there is more to us than our jobs. Perhaps I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but I know there is something there.

At this point, it’s worth considering a well known phrase:

            “Do you work to live, or live to work?”

I have no idea who first said those words, but they do make you think.

From a personal perspective, I fall squarely in to the first bracket. I work to live. But there has been a shift in the last few years, as I’ve been able to do work which I love. So it feels less like working.

On the other hand, I have friends who are absolute workers. And not in a bad way. It is an incredible trait, and I do feel at times, it puts me to shame.

It is their choice though. I have made my choices and they have made theirs.

But do either of our situations, mean to a greater or lesser extent, that our job defines us?

Yes…probably.

It is almost impossible not to cast a mental picture (good, bad or indifferent) of a person when talking about the work they do:

  • Mention being an Accountant and they’ll think boring (thanks Monty Python!). 
  • Say you work in media and it’s all about latte’s
  • Indicate you work for a tech company and they’ll ask where the ping pong table is

These are, obviously, hugely preconceived stereotypes but does that mean it’s incorrect? No.

So whether, I shun the traditional career routes for a portfolio career, or someone else undertakes a structured career path, we are both, in some way shape or form, defined by our jobs.

It is up to us, as individuals, to either allow this to happen or let our personalities shine through. I know which I would rather…

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