What do you do?

I’ve observed that after reaching adulthood, people pretty much become defined by their occupation, whether by other people or themselves. Whenever you meet other people for the first time, someone will inevitably ask the question “What do you do?” Most of the time it’s just a way to fill up silence, such as when you’re getting a service done. I suppose people also ask out of curiosity, and to get to know the other person better, so they have something to talk about.

In the rare event that I ask that question, I do it because I’m curious. (Most of the time, I avoid asking it because it’s an invitation to have it asked in return.) After hearing the answer, my curiosity has been satisfied, and I go on with my life. Okay, that’s neat that he does this. The occupation doesn’t make me think more or less of a person. However, I constantly fear people will judge me based on what I do for a living.

Sometimes at my current job, clients, seeing that I am young, ask me if I’m a student. When I reply that I am taking a year off before starting medical school, I sense an immediate change in their attitude toward me. Before I was just some young lady working on the computer and also as my boss’s de facto secretary, but as soon as they hear the words “medical school” I see awe in their faces. Isn’t this a reason for not judging others by what you see about them, because there may be more to them that you’re unaware of?

While it’s true that respect is earned, I don’t understand why people would automatically think less of someone because of their occupation. Sure, occupation usually is correlated with a person’s skills, intelligence, education, and effort, but just because someone is not working a certain job doesn’t necessarily mean that he was too stupid or too lazy for it. There are plenty of external factors that influence what career a person ends up in, including illness, financial reasons, and opportunity (or lack of it), to name a few.

Why not have a neutral attitude towards someone until his actions cause you to change it? There are plenty of physicians who are jerks, and CEOs who have cheated on their spouses or stolen other people’s ideas. For all you know, the guy who takes out the trash and polishes the floor every day could be a kind person. Shouldn’t a person’s character be more important than their occupation or income? Unfortunately, most of the time that’s not how people think.

Interestingly, after I had started writing this post I came upon this TED talk by Alain de Botton that addressed many of my questions, points out the problem with meritocracy, and offers a different way of defining success. I highly recommend that you watch it.

Some of you may know that I am currently struggling with this issue, since I have little desire to become a physician, but was pressured into applying to medical school by my parents, who would use threats to discourage me from pursuing my own career interests. Even now, my dad insults my current job, saying that I’m just doing menial tasks and if I don’t go to medical school, no better employers will want to hire me. While I don’t plan to stay at my current work for the rest of my life, the uncertainty of where a different job will lead me (in terms of the types of skills that I will pick up) is scary. A few years ago I had come to the conclusion that as long as I am living comfortably, it won’t matter to me whether someone else I know is making more money than I am. I wish I weren’t so concerned with people judging me by how I make a living, but unfortunately, I am.

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13 thoughts on “What do you do?

  1. does what we do for work really define us? or does what we do because we work define us? i think we put way too much on what people do for work. i think it is who we are that is more important

  2. People are only defined by their career when they have nothing else going on in their lives. I know a guy who organizes concerts and sometimes acts as a DJ. That doesn’t make him any money, so in the day he works as a QA tester. But that job isn’t what he does, it’s how he makes money.

    Do what you want, that’s what I say

  3. I think people ask what you do in an attempt to find commonality, rather than to judge. You’ve lived in a very judgmental world, and you seem to be looking for people to judge you. What is important is your own character, and your own satisfaction. People who have gone to medical school, especially for the wrong reasons, are not necessarily happy people.

  4. I agree-too much emphasis is put on jobs–I rarely ask either–however, I don’t judge a person simply b/c of their job (or future job). I’ve never been one to believe college was for everyone and I see the benefits of all needed jobs. I think it’s most important to have an occupation that one enjoy and that will meet one’s needs (not wants).

  5. I have a similar problem with that. Whenever people ask me what I do, I always say ‘Just cleaning’. I can’t seem to say it without the ‘Just’, I think because I know people judge others in that way, and I want them to know I’m not proud of it, in case they think I am. I want them to know I recognize it’s an awful job, and if I’m aware of that, it suggests I’m not content with it and that maybe I have my sights set higher. It actually just makes ME look a bit pathetic for being shamed of my job and for thinking a job defines someone. I’m afraid that if I say ‘cleaning’ without the ‘just’, people will think I’m content with it and that it’s what I’ve chosen to do with my life and that it is all I’m mentally capable of. I know I’m an intelligent person and I’m capable of so much more than this, and I’m ashamed of myself for not doing anything worthwhile with that intelligence so far in my life. I’m afraid people won’t realize that’s how I feel, so I have to say, ‘JUST cleaning’, in the hope that people realize that!

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