Does Your Job Define You?

(My newspaper column from The Beach Reporter 11/16/89.)

Quick: What’s the first question you get asked at a social gathering? (Besides “Do you know where the bathroom is?”) That’s right, it’s that perennial conversation-opener, “What do you do?”

Finding out what a person does for a living somehow gives us a handle on who that person is. Or does it? Does a person’s job define the essence of that person? Of course it doesn’t, but we do seem to be obsessed with putting labels on each other.

For example, if I am introduced to someone, and they ask me The Question, and I say I am a housewife, their smile freezes and they start casting about the room looking for someone who is more with-it. But if I say instead that I’m a writer, they look at me with keen interest.
Most people find the idea of being a writer fascinating. They think we all live like Stephen King or Judith Krantz, when in reality we are sweating blood over our computers and praying for an acceptance letter from anyone.

If I meet someone, and they say they are an attorney or a doctor, my first perception of them will be different than if they say they are a waiter or a fisherman. Later, as I get to know that person, they may shatter those initial perceptions, but without digging I may peg them a certain way.

Naturally, the work we do largely does define who we are as a person, because that is what most of us spend most of our time doing. You may be a dad first in your heart, but to the world you are a shoe salesman. You may hate your job, but be trapped in it by circumstance. You may have ended up in your first job by chance, and be nearing thirty years in the same company, and wondering how that happened. You may be forty, and wondering if this is what life is, and if it’s too late to change already.

One of the first Big Questions we ask our children is what they are going to be when they grow up. As parents we keep a keen eye on any developing talents our children show, and we are quick to point them out. Your 18 month-old builds a tall tower of blocks, and you proudly say she is going to be an architect.

Our children are counseled and prodded all the way through their growing years. Think ahead. Plan for the future. Get into the right schools so you can get a good job. Make something of yourself. Leave a mark in this world. Do better than I did.

This attitude also carries over to looking for a mate. In the movie Crossing Delancey, Amy Irving’s character finds it very difficult to get beyond the fact that a potential suitor is “the pickle man,” just as his father before him. She had risen above her surroundings, and had difficulty accepting this person for who he was.

I’m as guilty of this as the next person. When I was dating, I thought it was very impressive to call my parents and tell them I was dating a guy who owned his own company or was an advertising executive. Who wants to call their parents and say, “The guy I’m dating cleans up toxic waste after it spills on the freeway.” Or, “The woman I’m bringing to Thanksgiving dinner is a mud wrestler by trade, but she’s a wonderful person, and I’m sure you’ll love her.”

The danger in classifying people like this, though, is that people are so much more than what they do for a living. There is the plumber who reads every literary work the moment it is published. There’s the hairdresser who loves to go to plays. There is the homemaker who volunteers her time on ten committees to help others.

What if Cher, in Moonstruck, had looked at Nicholas Cage and scoffed, “Yuck, a baker. I can do better than that.” Instead, she found a man who loved opera, had a nifty silk scarf, and could treat her in a way she had dreamed of.

It’s so easy to judge people superficially. Why not take the time to find out what someone is really like? You might be surprised.

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