Our Jobs Should Not Define Us

When did it all begin? When did we start allowing our identity to be defined by our jobs?

You see it when reporters interview people who have lost their jobs due to a plant closure. Whether they made cars, or paper, or steel, you inevitably hear the displaced employee saying something like, “That’s who I was.” You hear a sense of loss. A loss well beyond an income stream. It’s as if they’ve lost a part of themselves.

Or, take the recent example of the former sitcom actor who was photographed and then mocked online for working at a grocery store. It was as if all of his prior work as an actor evaporated because he is now bagging groceries.

I am not immune from this mindset. When I graduated from college and couldn’t find a teaching job, I reverted to what I knew — fast food. I had worked for McDonald’s during high school and college, but after college I ended up joining Wendy’s as an assistant store manager. At some point, I learned my mother was telling people I worked for “The Wendy’s Corporation,” intentionally conveying images of white collar work, when really I was flipping burgers and making change in the drive-thru. It was as if the truth about my job was too much to bear.

This, of course, helped cement in my mind that I what I did, or didn’t do, with my college degree defined who I had become.

Then, once I became an attorney, I decided to work for myself. This too, seemed to be less than adequate. Even to some of my law school classmates. I ran into one in court. When he asked who I worked for, and I said, “Myself,” his very next words were, “I’m sorry.” As if somehow graduating, passing the bar exam, and having clients wasn’t enough. Success was defined by a job at a firm — the bigger the firm, the better.

I allowed that conversation to permeate my thoughts about myself for years. I let my job define who I thought I was, completely ignoring all the good things I was helping people accomplish.

Earlier this week, the Today Show was interviewing people in Maine as they tour the country taking the pulse of the American people. Jobs were foremost in mind for many of those interviewed. One man described losing his job when a paper mill closed: “You spend your whole life keeping something going, then they pull it out from under you. It doesn’t make you feel very good.”

He’s right. Losing a job doesn’t make you feel very good. I know. It’s happened to me. But, I refuse to accept that in the hours and days in between that man’s shifts at the mill he didn’t mean something to someone. Was he a father? A grandfather? A deacon at his church? A volunteer firefighter? Just because some corporation decided to stop making paper, that man did not cease to exist. But, yet, somehow you got the sense that his identity was forever changed when that mill closed.

As I become more aware of what the Future of Work will be like, particularly the predictions about the need to change jobs with greater frequency, I realize that these attitudes about our jobs need to change.

It’s time we stop letting our jobs define us. Rather, we should let our work define us. How we complete the work, how we treat our coworkers and customers, and how we continue to stretch our skills should matter more than whether we’re waiting tables, analyzing data, or building houses. What we’re doing today may very well not be what we’re doing in ten years. If we will be changing jobs with greater frequency, then we cannot afford to lose a piece of ourselves each time that happens.

For today’s youth, tomorrow’s workers, it is crucial that we change our mindset now. These future employees are the ones most vulnerable in the Future of Work, and we should not burden them with our mistakes. We should give them something better — a mindset that takes pride in the quality of work completed, that thrives on the challenge of learning something new, and takes satisfaction from achieving something that once seemed beyond our abilities.

We must see past the job, to the work, and to the worker. We need to stop passing judgment on people’s jobs, our own included. Focus on the work. Focus on the worker.

We are all trying to achieve the same goal — make our way through life with dignity, support ourselves, and take care of those we care about most. However we choose to earn the money necessary to do that should not define us.

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