Do Our Jobs Define Us?

Do Our Jobs Define Us?

Although there are no easy answers but in most cases the answer to the question posed in the title, is a resounding ‘yes’. Sad, but true. We define ‘who we are’ by ‘what we do’ because most of us are slaves of our work related identities.

Now like a good explorer, let’s look at this from evolutionary, cultural, psychological and philosophical perspectives. But first let me convert a seemingly rhetoric headline of this post into an exploratory situation.

What are we talking about?

Next time when you are taking a flight, do this little experiment. Ask your co-passengers(strangers) to introduce themselves to you. More often than not, right after they tell you their names, they will jump to what they do for a living. They could choose to tell you their hobbies, dreams, aspirations, blood group or religious beliefs. They also have options of opening up their political inclinations, their fandom for a certain rock band or whether they prefer cat or dog (or both) as pets. But they won’t. They, in most cases, will tell you who they are by mentioning what they do.

Why does it happen?

Let’s have a closer look with our four lens assembly.

1. Evolution: “You had me at ‘Hello!'”.

What is an introduction anyway?
An introduction is the evolved way to solve the “fight or flight” quandary. When someone introduces himself to me, I evaluate if that person is a potential threat or opportunity. This sets him in sort of a hierarchy of dangers that used to lurk around primal beings. As early men encountered the others they were constantly dealing in dangers and opportunities. The introduction in its early form of howls, growls, eye contacts or touch (which later became handshake) signified strength or lack of it in the other. This helped the decision: whether to collaborate with or attack the other; or run from it.

We always looked for signs (both verbal and non verbal) which could help us identify which bucket we can assign for this new person. Obviously the labels on the buckets available at that point in time were limited to “Threat” or “Opportunity”. As we kept evolving, we kept refining these labels.

There was no such need to introduce oneself within one’s tribe. But inter-tribe encounters still demanded an introduction and people had all sorts of mechanisms to identify people and put them in buckets (sometimes literally) using new signals and signifiers.

Thousands of years ago, identifying yourself with one or the other tribe was essential and hence your tribe was your main identity.
Clearly, tribes and pecking order added more buckets and more labels to put people into. People were not only friends or enemies but also collaborators, traders, mediators, arbiters, messengers, godmen, advisors etc. These buckets grew finer by generations and turned into professions later on.

2. Psychological: “Where is your ID?”

The concept of identity and consciousness is special (call it a gift, if you’re a believer) to a very few species and we are one of them. Our consciousness compels us to give a lot of importance to our identity. This is slightly contradictory to the fact that we also want to remain a part of a certain group(or groups). That makes sense because we are also social animals. We always need to define “ourselves” as a part of some or the other group. These different groups could be cultures, ethnic groups, associated beliefs, work groups or hobbies.

But why, out of these numerous groups to associate with, we select our profession as a primary group to define our identities. This is because in the corporate world that we are a part of, we imagine the profession to be a great identifier of a person. A lawyer, a salesman, a teacher, an entrepreneur, a cop, an entertainer, each of these professionals do create an interesting and well rounded image in our heads. This helps people describe themselves succinctly to strangers, and understand them through their profession.

But there is a bad news, a word of caution. We might be doing a great harm to ourselves and our mental health by making our jobs our world. As per this great article.

Your job is just your social face, what psychologists call a “persona.” Like a mask you need to function in society, but it’s not the real you.
3. Cultural: “Happy Halloween Guys!”

Let’s be honest, as a society we do respect people for their professional skills. Someone who is actively contributing to an economy is revered and acknowledged by family, friends, society and government. Well, this might reek of capitalism to you so let me try again.

We, as citizens, like to be associated with some kind of work that occupies most of our time (hence the word ‘occupation’). Culturally we are made to believe that life is what you “make” out of it, what you “do” with it. Most of our sayings, stories, metaphors and ideas are around work (or lack of it). Think about these – Jack of all “trades”, If life gives you lemons, “make” lemonade, Rome was not “built” in a day, All “work” and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Our pop-culture is obsessed with work and occupation. You can look at some sub cultures and their legends and folklores, and you might find that they underplay this feature in certain cultures, but mostly there would be stories around some kind of work or occupation. Observe our languages. The importance we give to the “verbs”, as a part of speech is inexplicable . I don’t think it will be an exaggeration to assume that every modern languages will have an expression for “work”.

Our rituals are designed around events like harvesting, and most cultures have festivals to celebrate them.
You can also observe how being unoccupied or unemployed is irrationally seen as failure in almost every modern popular culture. As if being unoccupied is synonymous to being without an identity. You get the point.

4. Philosophical: “To do is to be.”

The constant need to feel important is not new. It is in line with our finite and mortal self and the infinite other (the universe). If you have to define your self and give meaning to your life, you better do that around something that you can touch and feel, discuss and experience on a daily basis. And there is nothing that comes close to define your life as sharply as your occupation. Because we have been a part of this circular logic of “finding the meaning in doing things”, and “doing things for finding the meaning”. It is so much part of us now even if we hate our jobs today, 2 years later our CVs will highlight it like the best experience of our entire career.

Let me quote, verbatim (a fancy word for copy-paste) from this great website QuoteInvestigator

On January 12, 1973 “The Times” described a six-part graffito found on the library wall at the University of Guelph:

To be is to do—Aristotle

To do is to be—J. P. Sartre

Do be do be do—F. Sinatra

What is to be done?—Lenin

Do It!—J. Rubin

O.K.! O.K.!—T. Mann.

I guess everyone is a tad bit bothered and concerned about “doing” it.

Concluding with a joke, I asked my doctor friend to describe himself without mentioning his profession and so he tried it.

“Hi, I am Dan. I am Indian and I love meeting new patients”.

Let me know your points of view on this topic on


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