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.

So you want to be an artist?

One night last year, shortly before I left for Boston, I was thinking: how would I feel about myself if I became a ______? If I were a scientist, I would feel smart. If I were an artist, I would feel cool. If I were a psychologist, I would feel serious and interesting. If I were a physician, hm…. I’m not sure.* Then again, this is entirely speculation, since I really don’t know what it’s like to have these occupations.

Back in 2008 I would have never considered being an artist. I was interested in neuroscience. Art was too fuzzy and not intellectual, in my opinion. I liked art as a hobby, but that was all it was. I would have felt stupid if I had majored in art. After all, everyone my family knew who majored in art did it because it was fun and easy. Then they had a hard time finding a job afterward.

Then in 2009 something changed in my brain. After taking some art classes that I had wanted to take since high school, I found myself getting influenced by them and the people around me. Over and over again, the attitude I was immersed in was to follow your passions.

One thing I noticed was that in the classes, there were only a few people who were serious about the subject. It was their major. The rest, and vast majority, were only taking that class for fun. I also realized a few other things, based on my observations of people’s performance and conversations with others about their reasons for majoring in art. Here are my conclusions.

Don’t major in art just because you think it’s fun or easy. Don’t do it because you’re “not good at” other subjects. (One girl said she’s considering it because she’s not good at math, science or English.) Do it if you really have talent. Do it if you have marketing skills or are willing to develop them. (Or if you don’t have to worry about making a living.)

In no way am I saying I’m an authority on this. I’m not even sure if I have the aptitude to be an artist, based on the standards I listed above.

*Upon further reflection, I decided I would feel kind, boring, and sexy. Strange combination, I know.

Original Post 9/14/2012 8:12 PM