“What You Do vs. Who You Are”

by Shahida Muhammad

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?

  • http://twitter.com/gennatay Gennatay (@gennatay)

    This is a very good article.

    This society, as well as others, is very title driven. I think that this is where that fine line between, job, career and passion come into play. Most people don’t want just a job, they want a career. Experts have always said if you’re career is something you’re passionate about, you’ll never work a day in your life. So maybe if you find your passion and go from there, you’ll find what you do and who you are maybe be more similar than you think.

  • Shaquetta

    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.

    I love this. I completely agree.

  • Rachelle

    I have yet to figure out exactly who I am, but I am realizing who I am not everyday. This definitely takes time to figure out and I’ll look forward to the day it all comes together.

  • Blaque217

    I’m a mother first last and always. Even when I’m at work, I’m thinking about my son, how he’s doing, is he being cared for properly, is he happy, what his needs are…Being a mother is all I ever wanted to be and I wear that title/label with pride.

  • http://gravatar.com/lovegiraffes onegirl

    I think every day we are constantly evolving, so one day, your word could be ‘caring, loyal’, but a year later your word could be ‘mother, forgiving, etc…’ I think that is one of the joys of living, growing and moving forward. When people ask about me, work is the last thing I talk about. UGH!! hee hee. i hate typing that word. HA!

  • Moni

    I don’t think I could define myself by a single word (maybe two: Renaissance woman), but the one word I would never use to define myself is lawyer. I am not my job and my job does not define me. I would never limit myself to such a narrow definition. My personal characteristics that help me to excel at my job (analytical skills, attention to detail, etc) help to make me who I am, but could be applicable in any number of jobs. I define myself by my diversity of interests and characteristics.

  • Fuchsia

    I fit into the Millennial category when it comes to how I don’t define myself. I have had a word to define myself for as long as I could remember, and regardless of my relationships, and/or my occupation the true essence of who I am is always there, and therefore manifested in the things I do. The great thing about my word is that as I grow the meaning of the one word gets deeper and broader and continues to fit my personality. And maybe having a word allows me to aspire to my word and become more like the word I have chosen. My name is Shahidah. I am an artist, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a best friend, and a lover of fashion, but If God is Love, then I am Fuchsia.

  • Downsouth Transplant

    Nope, I define myself as a child of an all loving, gracious & omnipotent God.
    It is the only constant in my life it is who I am or who I will ever be, all the others are budding or blooming flowers in seasons that will come & go.

  • apple

    i have no job so who am i? nobody… according to society

  • GeekMommaRants

    In many cultures ones status is who they are. Some will treat those whose status is lower than theirs like trash, but will treat those with higher status like gold. The Chinese call this Chi. Losing one’s Chi is the worst thing one can do. Since diversity is going very strong in this country our personal definitions are not the only ones we must think about.

  • Dalili

    “Behold a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, the universe is unfolding just as it should.” Max Ehrmann Desiderata. :-)

  • Pseudonym

    “…Therefore be at peace with God,
    whatever you conceive Him to be,
    and whatever your labors and aspirations,
    in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

    With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
    it is still a beautiful world.
    Be cheerful.
    Strive to be happy.”

    Best.Poem.EVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Rocambolesque

    Nice article. Funny that I read ”Eat pray Love” 3 years ago and only watch the movie with my father about a month ago.

    I would quote Buckminster Fuller:
    ”I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”

    An underlying issue to the fact that we define ourselves by our job is the number of dates I got when the guy would ask me what I do for a living and … my income?!!!! One reason I am still celibate until I found someone who does not get interested in me just because of my resume but for who I am. Another problem is that it must be reciprocal: I would not date or have a ”friend” who has only superficial goals related to job, income and materials.

  • Deeana

    Nice article. Funny that I read ”Eat pray Love” 3 years ago and only watch the movie with my father about a month ago.

    I would quote Buckminster Fuller:
    ”I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe.”

    An underlying issue to the fact that we define ourselves by our job is the number of dates I got when the guy would ask me what I do for a living and … my income?!!!! One reason I am still celibate until I found someone who does not get interested in me just because of my resume but for who I am. Another problem is that it must be reciprocal: I would not date or have a ”friend” who has only superficial goals related to job, income and materials.

  • Pingback: What | Shahida Sadé Muhammad

  • Mademoiselle

    What does it say if I don’t define myself at all. Definitions seem so intimidating and limiting (and time consuming to come up with). I just am. Is that ok too?

  • Mademoiselle

    I guess I’m just wondering what purpose a definition of myself serves. I don’t really get it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RedSeaCourage Jennifer Rene Owens

    I define myself by my God-given purpose and what i enjoy. Even if i am not all that great at, Yet.:0)

  • http://Www.stacyaustraliabrice.blogspot.com Stacyaustralia

    I don’t know “who” I am. I guess i define myself by what i do. As most of you ladies stated who you are now may not be who you will be later. I’m a social worker who does therapy and I’m also a writer. Two years ago I was a grad student who worked in a psych hospital for adolescents and was also a writer. Hopefully next year this time I’ll just be a writer/author. I have other roles sister, friend, daughter but I don’t define myself by those.

  • Shelly

    Since my job sucks and has nothing to do with what I enjoy doing, I define myself by how I define my actions, how I define what I enjoy most, and how I define who I am stiving to be: beauty.

  • http://baucemag.com Bauce

    Absolutely love this piece!

    “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 think it is important to live beyond these titles and discover who we are. As a millenial I know that when I’m old and gray what I did in life may not truly matter. WHat will be important is the legacy I leave behind and knowing the person I have become.

    I am a survivor. First and always.

  • http://gravatar.com/designdiva40 paintgurl40

    you mean according to mitt romney (j/k) …but for real no you aren’t a nobody…you’re just somebody with no job…….a JOB ain’t nothing but WORK that’s supposed to pay for your needs. I’ve never heard of anyone on their deathbed wishing that they should have worked more….

  • http://gravatar.com/designdiva40 paintgurl40

    well i don’t define myself by my job. i work to pay my bills and that’s all it’s about. i work with autistic adults so i do like the fact that i am providing a service to people that need help, but my job doesn’t DEFINE me. right now i am a child of God, to love and help my fellow man no matter how hard it is. i am an artist, a baker, a wife, a pet parent, and “everybody’s” homegirl that they can talk to.

  • Kinkyhair30

    Great Article! I have a very vague memory of the movie, however it has been referenced in a lot of conversations lately about what defines a person. I think it’s okay to choose a word(s) to sum up who you are as a person and that will obviously vary depending on culture, gender, societies expectations, etc…. but words can be impacting and limiting; also leading to false expectations of what/who you should be.

    My word you ask?! Nurturer…from the children I bare, to the lecture series I speak, I nurture every word and action with my heart.

  • Thad

    The girl on the front cover is gorgeous.

  • Simone Gillon

    I honestly don’t know what word I am, but by finding myself and what I think that I will soon have a word for myself.

  • http://gravatar.com/skyemediagroup Skye Media Group

    Nope. My mother used to say dress for the job you want not for the job you have. In that case, I should wear a band of jewels around my head, a maxi dress and Grecian sandals, because outside of my job I’m a Bohemian Gypsy…in my mind. My FT job and PT gig are polar opposites but my personality leans towards my PT job more.

  • http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2012/10/what-you-do-vs-who-you-are/ Mike Jones

    “Who you are” may influence “what you do” but “what you do” certainly doesn’t make you “who you are”. We are much more than what we do. A person is made of flesh, soul and spirit and these 3 elements make us what we are. The most important element is our spirits. What we ultimately do will depend on our spirit which encompasses all of our beliefs. If we believe in nothing then we will do anything. If we believe in a Saviour like Jesus Christ then what we become is Saved. What we do after we are Saved is to try and make sure that the things we do align with his Biblical principles but this is an every day effort where we strive to match “what we do” with “what we are”..

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