Does Your Career Define You?

“What do you do?”

When someone asks you that question, chances are that your thoughts immediately jump to your career, or your job. This makes sense, since we often identify with what makes us “contributing” members of society. Chances are, you let your career define you.


This is why, when you are someone who perhaps stays home and cares for home and family, it can feel somewhat uncomfortable to give voice to that reality. We have this idea that our jobs are who we are — and that what we do to earn money defines our worth. (The unfortunate side effect that our society too often assumes that if you aren’t earning money, you aren’t doing something worthwhile.)

But do you have to let your career define you?

What Do You Do When You’re Not Getting Paid?

I’ve always thought it would be more interesting to answer the “What do you do?” question with something that you enjoy, rather than focusing on your job.

What if everyone answered this personal question with something, well, personal? You could say that you camp, play music, spend time with your kids, build model rockets, or any number of things that you enjoy. It would make for a more interesting conversation than yet another bland exchange about work, while dancing around the issue of pay.

Because that’s the other issue that arises when you start defining yourself by your career. If your career comes with a high level of prestige or respect, it might not matter if you are making money. Most people immediately appreciate someone who can say he or she is a teacher or a police officer. There is some “worth” attached to these jobs.

But jobs that provide a lot of money tend to get the “special” treatment. We seem to equate the fact that someone can make a ton of money — even if we know that someone isn’t particularly ethical or likable — with “worth” in society and as a person. When you let your career define you, you can take a lot of hits to your self-esteem if you put too much stock in what others think of your job.

It would be nice, if we’re going to label and define each other, if we spent more time defining ourselves and each other by the things that we like to do, and the things we do, even when we aren’t compensated.

This is one of the ways that I feel lucky. I consider myself a writer, and it’s something that I am paid for, but it’s also something that love doing. I get to have my cake and eat it too. It’s nice feeling. I don’t get paid for everything I write, and it’s those items that I’m not getting paid for that are often dearest to my heart.

Yes, I want professional recognition for what I do. It only makes sense. But I also don’t want to be completely defined, as a person, by the work I do as a “job.” It’s nice to be seen as a complete person, and to be seen for your many parts. Your career is just one part of the equation, but it seems to have an outsized impact on how you are viewed by others.

What defines you? Is it your job? Your salary? Or the things you do outside of work?

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