Does what you do, do you?
‘What do you do?’
It’s what we ask, or are at least tempted to ask when first meeting someone. It is as if what we do to pay rent defines who we are as a person. Even sports players’ characters can be defined by how well they played their last game.
‘Did you see how he choked on that last field goal attempt?’
‘Yeah. What an ass.’
Very few of us love doing what we do. We know this, yet when someone says they manage the Burger King down the street, we start to have a bit of internal judgment as to the overall character of the person themselves.
We attach our identity to our daily duties.
Now, in an ideal world, we would all do what we love to do and get paid to do it. That, however, takes a lot of effort and risk to achieve such a reward in life. I hope to write about that soon.
For today, though, we are going to talk about how what you are currently doing may actually define who you are. Perhaps we did not become a fast food employee by choice because our character is attracted to such a job, nonetheless, working that job may start to shape you and develop into the type of person for that job.
Practical to Psychological
Before jumping into this very unreliable and lonely world of being a writer, I was jumping out of planes as a parachutist for the French Foreign Legion. Well, technically I spent a few years as a traveling English teacher in between, but I see that as just a bridge from one dream job to the other.
Before being injured and medically discharged, my fellow parachutist buddies and I would always joke, ‘Did we get here [into this job] because we were already f***ed up or did this life do it to us?’
We usually decided we were already pretty messed up and hence why we were even accepted for the job.
‘There are only two things that fall from the sky… birdshit and idiots.’
It’s funny we may judge someone based on their current way of ‘making a living.’ Not because the job doesn’t help create the person we are today, but because we focus on just the surface-level, businesslike aspects of the job.
A personal trainer will talk about how to keep track of your calories and a workout schedule.
A private investigator may talk about looking for people while staying off the radar himself.
An electrician may tell you how to install a new ceiling fan.
These things are all part of the job and are fairly safe to talk about. But does it show how it makes a person who they are? Does it show how it possibly attracted the person to the job in the first place? Or how it has possibly changed them since they started doing it?
What we should talk about and expect when using the ‘What do you do?’ question to truly learn about someone is to talk about the ethos of said job. It is a little harder to find and approach, but it is much more unveiling and genuine when found.
What kind of psyche does the job beget?
How does it affect your internal being?
How does it help you grow?
And how does it restrain you?
Now, when was the last time you asked or even considered these questions when asking someone about their job? When was the last time you asked them about your own? It just isn’t very normal or expected in our current culture. I mean, it’s just a job, right? (In fact, it may only be a psychologist or philosopher that would even consider these questions. Yes, another way I’m strange.)
So back to our previous job examples. Let’s ask, ‘What is the subjective nature of your job?’
The personal trainer might talk about how he has to deal with avoidance and a lack of motivation. People that may very well be self-aware and responsible will call to cancel due to not feeling well or some last-minute schedule conflict. Then when they do show up for their regular training session or diet check-in, they may lie about how active they have been or how many cookies they have been eating before bedtime - all broken promises made from the previous session. Every day, the personal trainer has to face the challenge of convincing people to do some pretty simple things that are in his clients own best interest. It can make him a fairly harsh and strict person.
The private investigator spends his time looking for things that people want to keep hidden. He would no doubt be facing the aggression of the people he is looking into and the impatience of those paying him to get results. He would start to become a person that thinks that nobody cares about anyone else’s private life. It’s a job that will most likely lead to hurting those involved and can make the person doing it rather impersonal, cynical, and suspicious even when not being paid to dig around. There would probably not be anything that could surprise him about our human capacity for dishonesty.
The electrician could tell you how there are always issues coming up in his world. Yet there is always a solution if you approach it systematically and with caution. Electricity can be dangerous and complicated to work with. Not to mention in today’s electric-dependent world, the problem could be 15 different things. But if you take your time and go through each one, you will find it is definitely one of those things. He is happy to work with something that is so definitive and logical.
It may take a little more hot air, time, and thought to ask and answer the ‘job’ question this way, but it will lead to a better understanding of your fellow man. To help with this understanding even further, let’s make a dualistic breakdown of some of the more common characteristics of human nature that are either weakened or strengthened on the job. You’ll be able to profile people psychologically in no time.
Breaking It Down
In this section, we look at a few polar psychological traits to see how they play a role in different types of work.
Subordination v. Independence
Some, if not most, jobs will require you to bring yourself into or under a more collective view. With many types of work, such as being a public school teacher, you are expected to fold into the consensus and ask for approval for any deviations. While some lines of work may encourage you to ignore the rules or to look for new ways to do the same old things such as an entrepreneur.
Skeptical v. Believing
Does your job require you see through lies or dig for the hidden motives of people such as a journalist? Or do people pay you for being an open ear they can just openly reveal all such as a therapist?
Endurance v. Haste
Are you in a job that needs immediate action for immediate results like a paramedic? Or is patience the better virtue with long-term planning and progress such as a NASA engineer?
Dying Trade v. Growing Trade
Some industries are dying and some are growing. With Amazon’s self-publishing system, the craft of publishing is losing its appeal. Yet, new, more exciting opportunities such as creating phone apps provide a chance for excitement and high profitability. Does your work make you feel like you are about to be overcome by the world or are you on the forefront doing the conquering?
Abstract v. Actual
Do you focus on what could be or what already is? Are you meant to think and create like a poet? Or should you focus on the established details that are set in place like a mechanic?
Socio-Economic Status: Sturdy v. Brittle
A person’s dignity can be really wrapped up in their work. If you go to medical school, you will be assured a well-paying job with one of the highest job securities. Becoming an artist, however, will leave you constantly bare to rejection and snubbiness. An artist has to put their soul on display in all their work to the possibility of having it turned down or simply ignored. For an artist, even being good at what they do, may not lead to any real success in a material or public sense.
Fiscally Focused v. Fiscally Protected
Is your job all about the Benjamins? Are you a corporate executive that has to think about costs and profits and margins? Or are you in a place that is protected from such thought you so can focus on other issues such as a professor at a university?
Hierarchy: Structured v. Helter-Skelter
Is your line of promotion and advancement clear cut and easy to see like a communications technician? Or is the road less clear, with a trail of broken rules and lost friendships such as those of a politician? Even the beloved and charming President Obama was said to have betrayed his mentor in order to rise in his young career. No doubt such a job can lead to high levels of anxiety and difficulty to trust.
Positivity v. Negativity
Is your job all about putting the mistakes behind you and moving forward to the next chance to win such as someone who works in marketing? Or are you always focused on the negative, looking for problems or trying to predict and avoid future disasters as an accountant?
Human Nature: Beauty v. Beast
All jobs may be difficult in their own ways, but some will give you a glimpse into the beauty of our fragile existence such as a midwife who is there whenever new life is brought into the world. However, some may only see the darker side of our human nature such as the police.
It Becomes a Part of Us
Whatever we do, if we do it every day for years, we will be affected in our habits and our minds. What we do every day will lead us to believe in people in different ways. It can shape our view on life and, over time, sculpt who we are.
What we do isn’t just a job. We carry it with us outside the office or off the battlefield. We carry it with us in our present and into our future.
We may like to think we distance ourselves from our work, especially if we have a job that may seem less than honorable or ethical. Yet we can easily look at someone else from a distance - time or space - and see how life is very much shaped by the daily activities of someone.
We can see how being a priest in Spain during the late 15th century would have an effect on one’s psyche, yet we ignore the effects of our jobs on ourselves because it is much harder to see. It is from our perspective that we are looking at ourselves, so of course, it is normal. We may, in fact, need someone far from our line of work to point out how we have been influenced.
Imagine someone who works for a large think-tank meeting a teller at a party. ‘How do you think the global economy will be in the year 2050?’ The teller would most likely be a bit confused as to why you would even bother thinking of something like that. Sure, they may know the future is coming and there may be some unexpected changes along the way, but that will be for the tellers of the future to deal with the regulations and currencies of that time.
As such, an academic may not care much to talk about his hourly earnings because he focuses on teaching and gets paid a salary. He would also be quite confused by the question of ‘What is the financial benefit of researching the hygiene habits of Aboriginal Australians?’
Given, we can maybe see the more obvious effects of certain jobs like how teachers treat their kids as students. But are we able to see a bit deeper? Like how a technician may be very Stoic in his nature. He is probably a very calm and reassuring person in life because he sees problems in life like technical problems: don’t panic, use your checklist, and keep working until you get it right.
A writer will most likely work alone at home, often going days, weeks, or months without socializing beyond their household. It can be very lonesome. Loneliness is the main reason more people don’t work from home today despite the environmental and financial benefits of it. And when the work does put them in human contact with the outside world, it is often to criticism and demands of others, rather than praise or gratitude. This leads one to feel misunderstood and under-appreciated on a very regular basis. Their ambition may often have to be demoralized and overpowered for the more urgent need to write work they know they can sell rather than work they believe in or are passionate about. Due to this, they are hyper-sensitive and over-alert to the possibility of rejection and being mistaken.
Our jobs can be a great part of our lives. They can help us incorporate characteristics of ourselves we didn’t have before. A shy boy in high school can find confidence in himself through military discipline. Or someone who can’t keep track of their keys may learn better organization from working in a fast-paced office setting.
However, work can also create limits to our growth. We can become so set in our ways that to consider anything else may feel scary or uncomfortable. The open-mindedness someone had when they first started will start to disappear to the point that you could ask a 30-year judge, ‘What is justice?’ and they would be stunned with silence.
This can also go the other way by being so focused on one part of life that you completely ignore others. Asking a broker about his opinion on space travel might be taken offensively because it is a painful reminder of all the knowledge they choose to ignore to master one.
It’s hard to notice what has simply become natural through time. We give up on potential learning and growth. Though, even if we don’t change our jobs throughout our lives, we can still ask ourselves some pretty simple, yet deep questions.
How have I been shaped, for better or worse, by my job? This question could easily be related to how our childhood shaped who we are today.
If I had done something different with my life, would I be a different person? I hope by now you can see that the answer is a resounding yes. Just think how other aspects of your personality would have been nourished and encouraged in a different environment.
So what are these other parts of myself I have left out due to my current work life?
Remembering how work affects a person should allow us to better understand ourselves and help us understand why other people are the way they are. The over-sensitive artist may be that way due to the constant struggles of the career he has chosen. And the very impatient CEO may be given a bit of understanding for his demanding temper.
If someone had taken a different career path, they may well have been someone completely different. They most likely were not born the way you see them now. Our identities are so delicately susceptible to our jobs.
So the next time the question ‘What do you do?’ comes up, bear in mind, it’s not just a job.