Whenever you meet someone new, whether in a professional or social setting, one of the first questions that you ask each other (at least here in the U.S.) is, “What do you do?” It’s part of the bedrock of small talk. But how you answer this seemingly innocuous question can have serious implications for both your career success and your personal happiness.
Most people answer along the lines of “I’m a (insert profession here)”: “I’m a GO developer.” “I’m a SQL Server DBA.” “I’m a rabbit farmer.”
When you think about it, that’s a rather odd way to answer this question. In fact, the standard response is really an answer to a quite different question, who you are vs. what you do, identity vs. activities.
I’m not just picking apart a minor grammatical quirk. Think about someone who answers with, “I do accounting to pay the bills, but I’m really a struggling novelist.” People who answer this way are being very careful to make a distinction between what they do for a living and how they identify themselves internally. They feel that it’s important that you know who they really are and that you relate to them as they see themselves, with the appropriate respect and rank.
What’s important here is how powerfully our own self-images are governed by what we do for a living. We use our day-to-day work activities not only as a cue to others about our social status, but as a way of measuring ourselves as well. It is not only others who judge us based on what we do. We judge ourselves just as harshly, if not more so.
The degree to which we base our self-esteem on our work has always been problematic and a potential threat to happiness. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you do for a living. It fact, it is a rare gift to both enjoy and feel good about one’s work. But there’s a big difference between feeling good about your work and feeling good about yourself because of your work. If you base your self-esteem on your work, you turn over a large portion of your happiness to the vagaries of the market, to the swings of supply and demand.
And this dependency has never seemed more dangerous than in the age of the gig economy. Although independent contractors doing technical work frequently fare better than contractors in other fields, the dangers of over-identifying with one’s work is still quite significant.
As a contractor, unless you are independently wealthy, your control over exactly what work you do and what role you play with clients is limited. You do the work that clients are willing to pay for and you are competent to do, not just the work that supports or enhances your self-image. One day you may present the results of a multimillion-dollar project to a Fortune 1000 board of directors, and the next you may debug code. As a contractor, if you decide that you will only do director-level management work, you significantly limit your market, opportunities for income and chances to work with interesting people on interesting projects.
There’s nothing wrong with accepting this variety of work. In fact, it can be a great joy to mix both high- and low-profile work. I know quite a few people who have managed groups of hundreds of developers who are now quite happy writing code. Careers need not, and often don’t, follow the 1950s model of climbing the corporate ladder.
The problem is that too often we allow the work we do to govern how we judge ourselves. When high-profile work comes along, we feel validated and happy with who we are. But when that work dries up or the market turns down, we allow ourselves to feel worthless or undervalued.
To protect your own happiness, think carefully about how you answer the question, “What do you do?” The more you decouple who you are from what you do, the more likely you are to have a happy life and a flexible and fulfilling career.