Last week, I finally watched what has been deemed the quintessential soul-searching chick-flick, Eat. Pray. Love.. I had heard so much hype over the film, and although I didn’t find the whimsical tale very compelling, there was one scene that stood out to me. After divorcing her husband, dropping everything and going abroad for a year of reflection, the main character Elizabeth Gilbert found herself enjoying a delicious meal in Italy with some new-found friends. Over pasta and wine, they chimed in with words that captured places around the world. New York’s word? Achieve. Rome’s? Sex. Then, suddenly, Liz was asked:
“So Liz, what’s your word?”
After a break down of title’s she’d never lived up to she ended, “… I guess my word is, writer.”
“Yeah but that’s what you do that’s not who you are” another friend responded.
Finally Liz says, “Maybe I’m a woman in search of a word.”
This left me wondering what my word might be — would it be writer, like Liz stated? Or teacher? Or would it involve a job title at all? Aside from the things I do for a living, what word would truly capture me? Now in my opinion, what you do and who you are, don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When we put so much emphasis on what we do, however, it can dim the light on who we are in addition to that. Many of us define ourselves by our occupation or lack thereof, and studies have found that one’s professional status has a great impact on one’s self-esteem. So if we feel a big part of who we are is invested in what we do, how do we define ourselves outside of that?
For example, I thought about a recent get together with friends from school. We were excited to see each other and catch up, and of course like most socials, this interaction involved the current resume rundowns: “I just got a promotion,” “I’m working here now,” “So and so is in law school” and so on. Not that all that doesn’t matter, but as a society I believe we’re too consumed with what people do to pay the bills. I say this because there are so many people who are not fulfilled by their day job and by pigeon-holing folks into their job titles sometimes we can miss out on the other qualities, interests, talents and skills they posses.
As Australian writer and professor of Social Sciences, writes in The Ideas Book:
How did work become so central to our lives? And it is very central. It’s the first thing you want to know when you meet a new person. When asked ‘who are you?’, people define themselves by their jobs. They are what they do for a living: a teacher, a lawyer, a factory worker. Work is absolutely central to our self-identity. It’s also central to our sense of belonging because, apart from our families, the workplace is where we fit into society.
Work defines our status in society. It’s how other people judge us. It’s how we judge other people. Where people fit in the social hierarchy is determined by their jobs and incomes. And work determines our income because, unless we’re on welfare or have an independent income, it’s the only way we can have an income. Not only do we judge each other by work and income but we also judge ourselves according to the same criteria. Work defines our individual self-esteem. Our self-esteem is very low if we are unemployed. Our self-esteem is much higher as we go up the occupational ladder or hierarchy in general.
And yet, it seems many young adults in our generation are moving away from this line of thinking as is suggested in a recent study by the PEW Research Center titled Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change. The study found that most millennials (Americans 18-29) do not define themselves by job titles or work ethic and are more prone to identify by their interests, personal style and tastes. This, however, does not take away from society’s ongoing attitude that often implies one’s self-value should be equated with one’s career or professional title.
As I continue to think over this topic I realize that like Liz, it’s true that I’m a writer. I’m also a teacher. Who I am today is not who I was five or ten years ago, and won’t be who I am in the next decade. I’m constantly evolving, growing, changing and the experiences I encounter will continue to shape my personage. So, I’m not limited to my work, my income, or my career path, these only add to the true essence of me — which I’m still discovering. To date, I’ve learned that I’m caring, loyal, dedicated, creative, and nit-picky about my ish, to be brief. Of course, I still haven’t gotten myself all figured out but I realize that part of the beauty of life is finding that out.
Do you define yourself by what you do? If not, how do you define yourself outside of work?