You Are Not Your Job

Work is the nexus of activity and identity for millions of people. The standard workweek in the United States is 40 hours—almost a fourth of the total time in a week—with many people exceeding 40 hours per week. And, however much we may try to avoid it, jobs bleed into the hours when we’re not on the clock, too. There are things to get done and commuting before work (with occasional time-stealing black holes of dread). Plans, commuting home, and various ways of unwinding and recuperating after work. And days off (from work) where we attempt to rest and play hard in the downtime before work starts again.

Time is frequently organized around jobs with periods of ramping up before and cooling down after. It can be difficult to start and stop work without any carryover. Especially at a time when work texts, emails, and phone calls can interrupt at any time. Thanks, smartphones.

We regularly describe ourselves in profiles and to other people as a teacher, a barista, a musician, a small-business owner, and so forth. Or if we don’t currently have a job, as unemployed, a freelancer, a job-seeker, or retired. We talk about who we are as the job we have, the work we used to do, or the job we wish we had.

The way we spend and organize much of our time, and how we view and describe our own identity, is in relation to work.

Work, of course, is the way people make money—the predominant way we conceive of and exchange value in the world. Few people are in a position to chose not to work. Homes, food, transportation, education, healthcare, and more, all require quite a bit of money. And so most of us are forced to sell a large chunk our time, energy, and talent as labor for someone else, with the result that a lot of what we do in a given week and how we think about our lives is centered around that work. It’s almost natural to identify who you are with your job—given how much time it entails and the value (income, primarily) you get from it.

A lucky few get value beyond income. Relationships that transcend co-worker, or character growth, or personal satisfaction. But the percentage of people who really like their job is very small. Most of us do not and will not work the job of our dreams. Instead, we sell ourselves to do some combination of tolerable tasks and sheer drudgery. If you define yourself by your work and you don’t find your job meaningful, think your company or job responsibilities are embarrassing or intolerable, or you don’t make enough money to actually live off, your sense of identity and self-worth are going to be pretty shitty.

If you are working your dream job—fantastic. You are indeed lucky. But even those who are could suddenly lose it. Strongly identifying with your job doesn’t leave anything else to define yourself by if things change. And we’re all familiar with real or fictional stories of the workaholic who ruins their life and the lives of others by doing nothing but work.

It’s as cliche as an inspirational quote book to recognize that life is much more than the money you make, the job title you have, or the business you work for. But the overwhelming obligation and influence of work make it difficult to keep perspective. We have to remind ourselves that there are other forms of value than money–forms that are rarely achieved in workplaces today. And remind ourselves that work is something we do rather than who we are. Life is not merely for laboring for pay until you retire or die—though it can definitely feel that way.

Life is for discovery and pushing the boundaries of who you are as a person. To do our best to live well in a holistic sense. We need to make our actual selves the center: our emotions, relationships, interests, and potentials. Not what we do to get paid. It can be difficult to do that, but not impossible.

Most of us need to get better at how we use what we call free time or leisure. The typical impulse when we have time to do whatever we want is to veg out. But leisure is not necessarily a lazy or unproductive thing (unproductive–there’s another work reference butting into the rest of our lives). Leisure, when it’s done well, has a self-enriching and value-creating result. Maybe you watch an hour or two of Netflix because you feel like you need it. But then you move on to messing around on an instrument for awhile. Or to baking or cooking. Hiking. Coloring. Reading. Building. Or some other activity that challenges you in healthy ways and gives you a rich sense of purpose and identity. The contrast between some repetitive drudgery you do at work and the deep flow and meaning you experience doing something like hiking or composing a song is striking. But the contrast doesn’t exist if you always choose to veg out instead of exploring your interests and potentials.

Free time is also for relationships. A crucial part of who you are is being a friend, a mother, a brother, a spouse. There can be a temptation to veg out when we spend time with others, too. Like going out to get mindlessly wasted together instead of doing something that actually deepens the bond you share. Maybe it’s a couple nice drinks in a place where you can have a long conversation. Or going to the gym together. Or cooking a multi-course feast and losing track of time enjoying it. Leisure is often better when it’s with others, and it can be a shared way of upholding and expanding identity and self-worth.

And leisure is also good for getting your emotional self and internal monologue on track. Much of it happens as a byproduct of doing the right kinds of activities with the right people. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to do some self-reflection or meditation. It allows you to process through emotions, anxiety, crazy thoughts and bad narratives running through your brain, and things in need of healing. For me, yoga is an important part of my free time. But if something like that is too much, maybe it’s as simple as sitting on the couch without any noise or distractions, breathing deep and slow, and paying attention to what comes to the surface. What kinds of emotions do you feel? What are your heart rate and stress levels like? What kinds of hurts do you notice? Meaningful free time includes healing and restoration.

As long as our economic and social structures remain as they are, most of us will have to continue to devote big pieces of our lives to jobs. But we shouldn’t define ourselves by them. While we keep a post-work future on the horizon, we can be more intentional with our free time. Then the right things are at the center of how we think about who we are and how we grow over time. You are not your job or the job you don’t have. You are a human being—more expansive and interesting than anything you do for a paycheck can contain.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.

Own It

Have you ever found yourself in denial? In denial, looking for a believable explanation why you didn’t do anything wrong?

Sometimes we try to preempt the desperation for explanation by acting in ways that can be qualified in a favorable way later. By looking for the sweet spot of ambiguity as you go. Plausible deniability. Intentionally doing just enough so that there’s wiggle room. Keeping your opinions and participation vague by design so that you can wait to see how people respond.

If others like what you did, you can stand tall with pride, take all the credit, and let the praise wash over you. If others don’t like what you did, you can deny away and distance yourself from what happened.

I didn’t say that. That’s not what I meant. I wasn’t in charge of it. I was going to but I couldn’t. I didn’t know about it. It wasn’t me.

You’ve never done that, right?

Plausible deniability has become a way of being for many. Relationships are scary. Bosses are scary. Looking like a fool or a failure is scary. Making mistakes and dealing with the consequences is scary. Best to make sure you have a way to keep up appearances in case things go south. Staying on the path of plausible deniability keeps you in the safe zone.

But safe is not where life is. It might prevent you from pissing someone off or losing followers on social media. But it will also prevent you from being your real self and having real relationships with other people.

Expressing ideas and opinions you stand behind, making mistakes, and confidently trying things that might fail are essential to becoming a more flourishing person. If you get knocked down, you learn how to get back up stronger and wiser.

So stick your neck out. Be yourself. Own what you say and do. We need to embrace the scary and the relational friction and being knocked down if we’re ever going to get anywhere.

 

Who Are You Doing It For?

You’ve done it. I’ve done it.

You post something. You say something. You wear something. You buy something. And why did you do it? Not primarily because you’re excited about the thing itself. But because you’re excited about how others will react to you doing it.

The likes. The comments. The praise. The admiration.

You post it, say it, wear it, buy it…because you know it’s got a coolness about it. Some social clout. Some cultural capital. And so you doing whatever it is makes you appear cool or interesting or important by extension. You do it primarily to be seen doing it.

You post a picture at that fly-ass bakery that just opened because you know everyone is going to freak out that you were there. You leave an A+ paper out on the table for the whole period so the rest of the class sees it. You spout off your review about the movie that just released to show everyone you’ve already seen it. You tweet about first-world problems you’re having on vacation like you’re suddenly a local there.

In the age of social media, some people have been able to make a living out of being seen doing things. The people who post travel pictures on Instagram to be seen jetsetting. Who Facebook about eating at the trendiest spot to be seen eating at the trendiest spot. Who “try out” a new product in a YouTube video to be seen using it. They have a reputation of coolness that they get paid for in various ways, because they’re always seen doing the coolest things.

But you needn’t be trying to make a living out of being seen to be a participant. And it’s nothing especially new. Doing things primarily to try to gain status and admiration has been around for a long time. Conspicuous production & consumption seem to be a part of our human nature. Part of the quest to fit in socially and feel liked by others.

We just have more opportunities to do so now than ever before. Instagram has over 600 million active users. That’s a lot of people who can easily post photos and videos in a medium where there’s a temptation to do it to see how many likes and comments you can get.

Are you in an interesting or unusual place?

Did you just see something or someone famous?

Are you doing something exclusive–something others don’t have access or ability to do?

Are you the first to do something?

That could really get a response.

But what if no one saw you do what you’re doing? If no one praised you for it or told you how awesome you are? If you got zero likes or comments? Would you still do it?

How you decide to live and move in the world shouldn’t come down to the things other people will love you for doing. It should be about what you love doing. Things you do because you enjoy them–regardless of what others will think.

If you feel the urge to post a picture or video or status, do it because you feel privileged to experience something that brings you joy. Not because you think others will be impressed. Post it, and then close the app for awhile. Don’t even watch the response come in. The metric of value was that you loved it, not that 100 other people loved you doing it. Maybe don’t even post anything at all.

Do things for you. Not for them.

 

 

 

This Week in Upgrades: May 23

Alright…so I spent most of the week sick, and unproductive as a result. My usual mid-week post and Friday How to Adult were unfortunate casualties of that. Sorry!

I’m feeling much better today, though, so let’s leave that in the past and get the week started right. Just a handful of days left in May to give it all we’ve got.

Here’s what was good, interesting, and important in the last week:

Who knew that trees sleep?

Will the new food label help people eat smarter?

How can we combat an antibiotic apocalypse?

In encouraging health news, scientists have successfully removed HIV DNA from living tissue–possibly a step closer to a cure.

Is the idea of a biological clock simply a sexist myth?

India hit a shocking record-high temperature this week.

The price of solar energy is becoming more competitive, which bodes well for the environment.

Some scientists want to bring back wooly mammoths. Why?

A brief, but insightful Q&A with Noam Chomsky on current affairs.

The United States now has over a trillion dollars in credit card debt. Hooray! (Not.)

Does power indeed corrupt?

Superdelegates will probably decide the Democratic Party nominee for president. Why do they exist?

What can we learn from the ancient Greeks about technology?

Consumerism and “free trade,” epitomized.

Speaking of consumerism, have you seen Century of the Self? More relevant than ever.

Show this week who’s bossbut don’t take yourself too seriously.

Dumblin'
via GIPHY

How to Adult: Be Yourself

Being human is a funny thing. We are all full of both the incredible and the peculiar. For all the great qualities you were born with and have developed, there seems to be just as many you’re not altogether comfortable with.

If you haven’t figured it out already, most people you encounter have an opinion of you, and they’re not often the most generous editorials. Sometimes it seems the closer someone is to you the deeper the wounds are that they can cut.

But, of course, you probably don’t need other people’s critiques to feel unsure of yourself. Sometimes the look in the mirror after you wake up can leave you with a feeling of really? before you even encounter another person. At 31, I know I’m not exactly glowing with youth anymore, but does my day really have to start at the disadvantage of dark bags under my eyes and the constant reappearance of boogers? Be honest, when you see someone with gold in the mine, your impression of their IQ drops by about 50%. I think that about myself when I see it in the mirror.

It can be hard and weird and uncomfortable to be you–whether other people are making you unsure of yourself or you are. The thing is, though, we’re all in the same position. Any person who looks like they have it all together has something different or strange or displeasing if you go below the surface. Maybe they smell funny if you get close enough. Maybe they like ketchup on macaroni and cheese (seriously, that’s disgusting). Maybe they struggle through some kind of speech or learning impediment.

As human beings, incredible and peculiar, we have to learn to manage the good and the undesirable. How do you do that?

First, like what you like. If your ultimate dance jam is a N’Sync song from back in the day, own it. When people ask you about your favorite music, don’t reach for something that’s popular and safe.

If you really do think ketchup is great on mac & cheese, see a doctor about your taste buds squeeze a mountain of Heinz on top of your noodles while you grin at those around you staring.

Second, and more importantly, be gracious. Be gracious to yourself. There will be days of your life–when you’re old like me, if not already–when your body does weird things. Days when you made a horrible decision, said the wrong thing, or didn’t accomplish what you thought you could. It happens to everyone. Try to learn to laugh at it as absurdity instead of allowing the feeling to overtake you that you must be the weirdest/dumbest/lamest person in the world.

As you feel more confident liking what you like, and are able to be more forgiving of yourself, it’s quite possible that you’ll feel a greater sense of liking and being gracious to who other people are too. It’s called empathy, and the world needs more of it. People are endlessly fascinating if you give them the space to be them without judgment. You may even find yourselves in a comfortable enough place to laugh at each other’s weirdness, which is fantastic.

As long as we’re around, all of us are going to have to deal with the awesome and the unwelcome that comes with being human. Like what you like, be gracious–be yourself.