My Job/My Self

When I was in second grade, we had a class fashion show in which we all dressed as what we wanted to be when we grew up. One by one, each of us got up from out seats (it was a very avant-garde fashion show in which the models didn’t walk a runway but rather sat in rows of chairs, facing the audience), walked over to a microphone, and read a little speech we had prepared.  “I want to be a ballerina when I grow up”¦” I (and, it almost goes without saying, five other girls) said proudly into the microphone. I probably then waxed poetic on pirouettes, grand jetés, and pas-de-chats. Or if not that, then undoubtedly something very similar – I can’t be held accountable for complete accuracy; this took place about 22 years ago, so you’ll have to cut me some slack. Indeed, in spite of this ceremonious pronouncement (and the ceremonious circumstances in which it was made), I sit before my computer today not in a tutu and toe shoes but in typical business casual wear, drawing a very small salary. I’d wager that my five fellow ballerinas are doing the same. What happened?

Once a child hits a certain age, questions like, “And how old are you?” become too mundane and have to be replaced with more sophisticated inquiries if anything close to polite conversation is to be achieved. That’s when adults move on to things like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s meant to be harmless, but deep within that question lies a force so powerful that it’s capable of rooting itself in a child’s brain and staying there long into adulthood. The conversation moves forward in a harmless way:

Child: “I want to be a dog/scientist/cowgirl/ballerina/singer/astronaut”¦”

Adult: “Well, good for you.” [hands child a package containing a bag of kibble/microscope/cowgirl hat/ballet shoes/toy microphone/ticket to space camp] “Here’s a gift that will encourage you in your pursuits.”

And everyone comes away from it feeling good: the adult because she remembers what it was like to have dreams of being a cowgirl, and the child because she just got a new toy and has been encouraged in her lifelong dream.

Through the years, that same question recurs, though it begins to evolve a little bit. Instead of “What do you want to be?” it turns into something more along the lines of, “What do you want to do?” The change in verbs indicates that identity and professional activity are strongly related – possibly to the extent that they are considered one and the same. As time continues to pass, the question gets to be more frequent, and more urgent: “Well, what do you want to do with your life?” A response along the same lines as what you would have said as a child will no longer suffice, because now this is serious. What you do with your life determines who you are. Your job title will determine how people see you, and how you see yourself.

What happens, then, when job dissatisfaction sets in?  Maybe you were wrong in assuming that the career path you chose would be fulfilling; maybe you were wrong in thinking your current job would be just fine “for now”; or maybe you don’t even know what it is you want to do, who it is you want to be. Accenture recently released a study in which 3,400 women and men in 29 different countries were surveyed about their levels of job satisfaction. The results? Fewer than 50% of employees are happy in their current position. That’s a lot of unhappy people and a lot of shattered childhood dreams. Survey respondents cited a variety of reasons for their dissatisfaction: feeling underpaid; a lack of opportunity for growth; no opportunities for career advancement; and a feeling of being trapped. If our jobs are a central component of who we are, as we’re led to believe when we’re growing up, then what are the implications of widespread job dissatisfaction?

In an economy where job selection is limited and the refrain, “Well, you should just be happy you have a job!” (how quickly the people who used to be so concerned with what you’ll do with your life change their tune!) is all-too-common, it’s hard to a) wish for something more, and b) maintain the hope that something more is out there. The consequences of conflating job and identity become clear, as the misery that results from the attitude that one is one’s professional life grows increasingly intense. The well-meaning family members who helped instill this concept of identity in you in the first place adopt a different tactic and tell you that work isn’t everything: “You need to learn to leave your work problems in the office,” etc. But when your work problems entail feeling like you’ve failed to live up to your life’s potential and that you may be stuck as an office drone for the rest of your life when what you really want to be doing is exploring space or writing successful cookbooks, letting the frustrations you face over the course of the eight to 10 hours (if you’re lucky) out of the day you spend focused on job-related concerns evaporate as soon as you leave your office is probably not a simple task.

How would rates of job dissatisfaction change if we were able to find a way to break the association we’ve created between who we are and what we do? If, when we met new people, one of the first questions we asked wasn’t, “What do you do?”, how would that affect our perception of them and their perception of themselves? Would we be any happier, or would we just be unhappy for different reasons?

Published by

Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at http://www.icametorun.com.

15 thoughts on “My Job/My Self”

  1. I graduated college in January, and I clearly picked a great, financially-stable economy type of year to do it!

    I landed an internship in December, so I puttered around doing that, and then it ended in May, and besides this fun (but obvs unpaid) writing gig at Persephone and my regular blog, I HAVE NOTHING.

    I’m having a hard time figuring out what I want to do, and forgive me if I sound young, naive, and asshole-ish, but I don’t think I’ll ever be more scared of the real world than I am now, now that I have this BA in Film Studies (with a minor in creative writing!) and have heard back from absolutely no one.

    And can I just say how much I HATE cover letters? That seems to be ALL ABOUT sublimating your identity into your job.

    1. The world is pretty f’ing scary, I don’t fault you a bit. Cover letters are the devil, the line between making sure your future employer knows you’re awesome and sounding like an asshole is very thin. We are here for support, though! Lots of us have been where you are, lots of us still are. We may not be able to make jobs appear out of the air, but we’ll listen like champs. And when Oprah discovers and buys us (COME ON, O!) I’ll give all of you a job.

      Have you ever done tech writing? That’s one writing field that’s low on glamor but relatively high in options. It’s hard, and it can be as interesting as staring at a white wall all day, but the pay is decent and you’ll build mad writing skills.

      1. Aww, I love internet friends! *hugs*
        I never thought about Tech writing…mainly because I’m not really tech-oriented and have trouble understanding the more technological and scientific ways the world works. I’d like to look into it, though…any suggestions on how to start?

        1. I’d start by taking a tech writing class. There’s a very specific style to tech writing, and the best way to learn it is to practice with someone who knows WTH they’re doing. Check around at local colleges to see if they offer a class. If you’re still close to where you got your degree, you should be able to get a discount there. (Do colleges still do that for grads?)

          Otherwise, read lots of instruction manuals and practice writing easy to follow directions for a variety of tasks. (A good one: Explain how to use all the features on your computer’s calculator.)

          1. Funny you mention this cause I just read someone on MSN ( I think) that said an great job for introverts was tech writing. I’m a tech trainer and I write all of our manuals, but I never went to college or took a course for it. Most of what I found online, job wise, expected someone to have a degree in tech writing… soooo, basically are there jobs doing tech writing that don’t need a degree? (I mean I am sure there are some, but are they common?)

    2. I completely agree that the world is a scary, scary place, and that cover letters are the devil. I can’t tell you how many cover letters I’ve written where I’ve had to hold myself back from just saying, “Please, just give me this job. You have no idea how much it would mean to me. PLEASE.” Being in a situation that makes you want to get down on your knees and beg is never ideal.

      Speaking as someone who is as firmly entrenched in the Humanities as you are (hi, MA in French literature? 2 years toward a PhD? What was I thinking?!), I can say that there are things out there. Job searching is hard, and with all the rejection it entails (both implied and explicit) you just have to put your head down and soldier forth. Something will surface eventually–I promise. And like Selena says, until it does, we’re here for support :)

      1. I’m writing a cover letter to Google stating:

        “I bow to thee my Google overlords!

        Before you create Skynet and wipe all human existance from the planet, may I please work for thee and show my undying love whilst earning a measly coin?”

        I expect a job offer by Monday.

  2. I’ve been a lucky bitch for a very long time. Until Oct. 2010, I’d never been unemployed for more than 60 days since I was 15.

    The hammer dropped and I’m still unemployed 9 months later. About 90% of my self-worth was tied into me having a career. No matter how much I hated a job, I still had the ‘career’ to look at as my silver lining.

    Now I’m learning how to find other silver linings…which aren’t very bright when one is unemployed (as many of you know, being in the boat rowing with me). It’s a damn slow process and one fraught with anxiety, depression, and a reoccurring sense of failure.

    I never want to identify myself as ‘my career’ again, yet I can’t stop thinking, I’d be a lot happier if I had a job right now…maybe I’m just fooling myself though?

    1. Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear about your job loss and everything that’s come along with it. It really is hard to extricate yourself from your job, isn’t it? I’m currently employed but struggle with similar feelings of failure, depression, and anxiety that sometimes pervade all aspects of my life, even the ones I love dearly. This is not to say, of course, that I completely understand what you’re going through, because I know that the added stress of unemployment must make things an order of magnitude harder. I do know, though, that because of our similar experiences, we can all help each other out, support each other, and help each other remember that we are much more than our job titles.

      I really hope your silver linings start to show a bit more brightly very soon!

  3. This post could not have come at a better time. I was already having a bit of existential crisis tied to work-related issues* when my boss decided to quit, leaving the rest of us stuck trying to find new jobs. And now I don’t know what. I don’t even know how to finish that sentence.

    *How easy it is for “man, I don’t know how I feel about this job anymore” to turn into a “what am I doing with my liiiiiiiiiiife?????” crisis when your identity is so tied to what you DO.

    1. That shift from “do I like this job?” to “my life is a wreck!” happens very quickly for me, and I might even go so far as to say that my existential job crisis has been going strong for over a year now. In short: word.

    1. Why thank you! You have made my day.

      “Just be glad you have a job” is, to me, the equivalent of, “How about this heat?” when it’s 95 with 100% humidity. At what point can you just tell someone that their input is *not helping*?

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