A perfectly reasonable question, right? It’s social shorthand for “who are you?” a convenient fall-back in the face of awkward silence or prolonged mingling; polite, simple, safe chit-chat. Um, right?
Well, consider: A couple of years ago, I reconnected with an old friend who’d since moved to Alaska. I asked him what it was like up there, what had prompted such a move. And he said–and I quote, “Californians are so shallow.”
I’m used to “smug,” along with some mention of organic vegetables, Masters degrees, and hybrid cars, but shallow? Not so much. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“The first thing anyone ever asks is ‘What do you do?'” he said.
And with that, he kinda shut me up (no small feat). It’s an interesting–and somewhat unusual–perspective, given how much of our time is poured into doing whatever it is we do, and how much of our identity is derived from what we do… but if we allow ourselves to see his point–that defining ourselves in terms of what’s on our business card is, indeed, shallow–what might we learn?
I was reminded of this conversation when reading a piece in this month’s Marie Claire magazine: In “Is your career ruining your credibility?” Sarah Z. Wexler gets into the issue of being defined–and judged–on the basis of what we do. Here’s a taste:
Former financial analyst Stacy Bromberg, 35, used to hold her own with the big-shot lawyers and bankers in her family Then she accepted a lucrative offer to be a senior VP of strategy for a major cosmetics company. ‘Instantly, I became the punch line at every family get-together,’ she recalls. ‘When I chimed in to a politcal discussion, my uncle asked how I found time to read the headlines when I was busy testing out lipsticks. Now, whenever I talk to him, I end up overcompensating, spending the whole conversation dropping fancy words, mentioning my assistant and whatnot, just so he and everyone else in the family knows that they’re dealing with a somebody. But I often sit up at night wondering if I’ll ever be taken seriously again.’
We all know women are judged by how they dress, talk, and act on the job. It’s only reasonable, then, that we’d also be scrutinized for the actual careers we choose. Though women represent nearly half the workforce and occupy positions of power unthinkable even a decade ago, many of us have put off marriage and families to get there. Some women complain that that’s resulted in tacit, insidious pressure to secure the kinds of jobs that justify all those trade-offs.
And, of course, the cruel irony is that women get it from both ends: If we take a low-powered job, we’re perceived as weak, unenlightened, whatever. But if we’re a serious player on the fast track, people are just as likely to judge: don’t wanna be too ambitious. For a woman, a job isn’t just a job. It’s a comment on who she is–in a way that it isn’t for a man.
Leaving that aside, again we’re reminded of the fact that women are relatively new to the workplace (it’s only been a generation since the demise of want-ads segregated by gender!), and coming into it armed with the message that You can do anything! (which, internally, tends to translate to: I better do something really, really good!)–all of which leaves us shouldering the weight of some serious expectations. Of course we want to prove we took that opportunity and milked it for all its worth! Of course we want an impressive answer to the question, “So, What do you do?”
But really, why? Often, the most impressive-sounding jobs are not so fabulous in real life. Take, for example, Alex, a Hollywood producer we profile in Undecided: “Dude. I’m doing what I wanted to do out of college, and now I’m over it. Sometimes what we originally think is glamorous turns out to be the opposite. After ten years in this industry, I’m ready for a big change. Ideally, owning my own business and never having to worry about a director not enjoying his sandwich.”
Like children transfixed by bright and shiny objects, we want the title, the money, the prestige… Even when we get what we’re after only to find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, those bright and shiny objects are hard to give up–because, as much as we likely would rather not admit it, part of that ever-elusive picture-perfect life to which we aspire is the picture itself. How it looks. And yet, as Lori Gottlieb told us,
‘Something that looks really enticing from the outside is usually sort of culturally informed… very superficial.’ So why, we asked, do we get so hung up on them? And in a Helloooooo kind of tone, she told us what we already knew: ‘The objective things are so alluring.’
Alluring, yes. And often it’s only after some trial and error that we find what’s right for us–that what first looked so alluring is in fact, not what we’re passionate about–or even enjoy. But maybe a good indication that we’re on the right track will be when someone asks us “So hey, what do you do?” and we no longer care how our answer sounds.