What You Do Is Not Who You Are

Dec 20, 2016

When we meet people, the first piece of information we share is often tied to our career.

“Hi, I’m Lisa.” “Nice to meet you, Lisa. What do you do?”

This use of vocation to make sense of social order is very strong in Canada. Other countries have different pieces of information that they exchange to give shorthand cues about social position and status. They will share what village their family is from, or how many children they have, or how old they are.

But in Canada, career is king.

Even in our justice system, strong assumptions are made about who a person is based upon what it is that they do.

I can’t help but recall the experience of a few years ago when I was Juror #12 in a murder trial.

As the lawyers on both sides of the case began jury selection, I was surprised to see occupation quickly rise as a key factor in whether someone was challenged or accepted.

The lawyers had access to three pieces of information about those in the potential pool. They could see us, they knew what borough we lived in and they knew our occupation.

That’s it.  The stakes were high and the lawyers made their choices based on what they believed to be true about business owners, teachers, analysts, priests, etc.  Never had I seen a more meaningful demonstration of the importance our society places on occupation.

As we spent days and weeks together, it was interesting to see our own preconceived notions about each other fall away. We, too, had made initial assumptions based on the three data points available.

With occupation and identity so closely tied together – it’s no wonder people find the idea of changing jobs or careers overwhelming.  Who are we if we can no longer introduce ourselves as “Bob in IT” or “Sarah at XYZ Company?”

Here are two suggestions for how to see yourself and others as more than their current job titles:

Introduce yourself to people you meet using something other than your occupation or title. You can use where you born, the type of activities you enjoy, the types of problems you like solve, anything other than your job.

When you meet someone, ask them a question that is not tied to their current occupation. Open yourself up to the broad range of personalities and perspectives held by people who all share a common title.

There are many other experiences and factors that define who you are. Introducing yourself with your current job title ensures that dozens of times a week or are repeating something that one day may no longer be true. You are conditioning yourself to “be the job” – even if it is a job you don’t like or want anymore.

Career change doesn’t have to be threatening to your identity or risky to your sense of self. You are much more than your job. Once you believe this, others will too.