The first question you tend to get asked when you meet someone these days is “What do you do?”
It’s a god-awful question and it makes one anxious. Everyone hates that question, but for some reason everyone still asks it. And when you answer, they make a split-second decision to decide if they want to get to know you better, or leave you behind. This question makes you anxious because we live in a world of snobs. People take a tiny part of you — like your professional identity — and use it to come to a complete verdict about your value as a human being.
The opposite of a snob, however, is your mother. She doesn’t care about your status. Or your salary, or who you banged last Friday (Exception – Indian Mothers), or the color of your iPhone. None of that matters to your mother. She cares about your soul. But unfortunately, most people aren’t our mothers — and that’s why you worry so much about the judgement of some guy/girl you met at a party who asked “What do you do?”
To make matters worse, we live in a materialistic world where emotional rewards are tied to material things. That’s why people are willing to pay $2,000,000 for a fucking dog (I swear, that’s a real thing).
But in reality, what people really want when they go after money, big jobs, fancy cars, or multi million dollar canines is rarely the objects themselves. What they really want is the attention and respect — nay, the love — that are given to those who have those fancy things. And to add to your anxiety, your parents constantly told you that you could become anything, as long as you worked hard enough. So starting at a very early age, your expectations for your future were sky high. In many cases, unreasonably so. So even though you were told from day one that you were special, for some reason you don’t feel very special, which is why you’re unhappy right now.
Last week I read an article about the personal bank accounts of startup founders. A few of my folks wished they had a big bank account. What they were really saying was “If I had money, I’d be happy.” They’re wrong.
It should be great that there’s so much opportunity in the modern world. But think about that for a second. What if you fail in such a world? What if you don’t manage to get to the top, even though you spent thousands on a fancy degree and your mom said you could do anything you wanted to?
One way to find the answer to that question is to look at self-help shelves in bookstores, where you’ll find two kinds of books that capture the modern anxious condition.
The first have titles like “How to Make It Big in 15 Minutes” or “Be an Overnight Millionaire.” The second have titles like “How to Cope With Low Self-Esteem.” However, the two genres are related.
See, a society that tells people they could have everything, but where in fact only a tiny minority do, ends up with a lot of dissatisfaction and grief. And to add to your big shit pile of issues for why you’re so unhappy, there’s a related problem: our societies aren’t, to a large extent, fair.
Back in the olden days you knew the system was totally rigged. It wasn’t your fault if you were a peasant. And not to your credit if you were the lord. You were born into it. But nowadays we’re told our societies are meritocracies, places where rewards go to those who “earn” them : the hardworking and clever people.
Today, especially in the countries (where meritocracy is big), unfortunates are called “losers.” We scarcely believe in “luck” nowadays as something that can explain where we end up. It’s no wonder the suicide rates have soared in the past few decades. In our modern world, your professional position has become the central verdict on your character.
That brings me to my original point. When someone asks “What do you do?” they aren’t asking how you spend the hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but “Are you a winner or a loser?”
“And if you are a loser, please get out of my way because I’m going to pretend to go get more coffee but really I wanna talk to someone because he/she’s been in Forbes 30 under 30 and being associated with her/him will make me feel cooler.
Here’s how you will find your happiness…
To start, you must refuse to believe that any society can really ever can be meritocratic. Luck or accident are a critical determination of where people end up in the hierarchy. Treat no one — not least yourself — as though they entirely deserve to be where they are.
Second, make up your own definition of success, instead of uncritically leaning on society’s. There are so many ways to succeed, and many of them have nothing to do with status as it’s currently defined within the value system of capitalism. Sure, money can be one of them, but it’s up to you whether it’s the ONLY one.
Third, you should refuse to let your outer achievements define your sense of self entirely. Of course, that doesn’t mean to not try to be rich and have nice things. It just means that there are so many amazing accomplishments that don’t stand a chance of being captured by that maddening and blunt question, “So, what do you do?”
And finally, and most importantly, you should find fulfilling work, which isn’t easy.
It’s interesting — the idea that work might be fulfilling rather than just painfully necessary is a strikingly recent invention.
Nowadays, we not only expect to obtain money through our labor, but to find meaning and satisfaction. We’re told to follow our passion. But like fulfillment, even the phrase “follow your passion” is relatively new and didn’t gain popularity until the 1990s.
“But what’s my passion,” you ask yourself, “and how do I make a living from it?” It’s not easy to find, that’s for sure, but it’s very possible.
In the pre-industrial world, there were at most 2,000 different trades. Nowadays there are estimated to be half a million. Because of this, you become so anxious about making the wrong choice that most of the time you don’t make any choice at all. I call this the paradox of choice — paralysis stemming from too many options.
You should acknowledge that confusion is natural and fear is entirely normal, but let neither of these hurt your chances forever. With so many choices and the pressure to follow our passion, it’s a big decision, which is why so many of us are having career crises, often on a Sunday evening as the sun begins to set.
So next time you meet someone, and they ask “What do you do?” the appropriate answer is to tell them what you enjoy doing.
Running 5ks, listening to gangster rap, skateboarding, walking your dog, playing Tinder, washing your clothes, taking walks, traveling places, doing puzzles, watching movies with your lover, day dreaming, reading Wikipedia.
Or just tell them to stop being such a conforming ass clown ‘my personal favorite‘. Either one will work.
Photo Credits – Adrian Perez Acosta