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Why the question ‘What do you do for a living?’ is both thrilling and terrifying

Author Joel Sanders

At TELL ME MORE® we make it our mission to understand the psychology underlying human buying behavior. The deepest forms of psychological behavior derive from our identities as people, and identity is couched in what we narrate to others and ourselves about ourselves and our lives. In this article, we explore the psychosocial concept of personal identity as it pertains to our working lives, and how we explain what we do for a living to others in social settings.

In the context of work, doing what we like and getting paid for it allows us to become someone we truly like. Conversely, if we don’t like what we do for work, is it possible to truly like ourselves?

Learning to talk about ourselves

As soon as we learn to talk, we begin to formulate the idea that we both have a self and that we are required to account for ourselves. The way we account for ourselves is through telling narratives and stories that describe our life interactions.

In the earliest conversations we have with our mothers—what psychologists call mother-infant memory talk—we begin to learn how to articulate our own experiences by formulating them into stories. Infants and young children are asked to describe a moment in time, including who was there, what they did, why they did those things, and more.

These elaborative questions that mothers (and sometimes fathers) ask provide young children with the scaffolding they need to understand what a personal story is and why it should be told in the first place. Questions such as, “Who was there? What did we do? Why did we all laugh?” give children  the tools they need to tell stories that have meaning and importance. These storytelling skills provide a foundation for a system of narratives children will be telling and retelling throughout their lives and—importantly—in defining their lives.

It’s in defining ourselves that we imply and express our specific personalities: our tastes and preferences, what we like and don’t like. We like things that are like ourselves. That’s why branding is really the practice of human personality development. We like brands that are like us in certain important ways, whether it’s something as complex and nuanced as values or as simple and basic as color.

Becoming someone we like through our work

As we grow older, the stories we tell about what we like and don’t like tend towards learning, work and production. From assignments to class participation, everything we do is watched, judged, and graded versus our peers.  Parents begin asking “What did you do in school today?” and we’re expected to have an answer—a story—that shows that we are progressing and becoming someone.

We begin to learn that our behavior—what we do and what we produce or fail to produce—is instrumental in determining whether we are worthy of respect and admiration, or scorn, condescension, and punishment. The stress that this creates modulates our behavior, causing us to lean into or evade our responsibilities.

Adults commonly ask older children and teens, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” which, examined closely, is an incredibly complex and difficult question. Most young people, after all, have no idea what the adult world of work is like. Moreover, we are expected to weave a unique future out of the threads of our personalities, circumstances, and values, yet we’re offered little to no instruction on how to carry out such a daunting task.

Even adults struggle with the question of “who they are” well into their third and fourth decades and beyond, given that a truly congruent answer implies deep satisfaction with—or even relishing in—career choice. The euphemism, “I’m still trying to figure out who I want to be when I grow up,” may be spoken by a 30-year-old tongue-in-cheek, but it reveals our culture’s underlying reality of an extended adolescence and the overwhelming panoply of career options young adults face in forging their futures.

In the context of work, doing what we like and getting paid for it allows us to become someone we truly like. Conversely, if we don’t like what we do for work, is it possible to truly like ourselves?

You may have a job, but you’re expected to find and live your vocation. ‘Vocation’ comes from the latin vocare, which means ‘to call or summon.’

Thus “What do you do for a living?” instills the same fears in adults that we face as teens. How we answer that question conveys both social status and the slippery idea of “authenticity,” i.e., of living a life that’s true to some core set of values that each of us is also expected to individually formulate and live up to. Do we lead interesting lives that are worthy of respect? Do we have a plausible explanation that, when we tell our “life story,” is accepted with interest—or even envy?

Being authentic in our work

We may be responsible for determining our personal values, career path, and the contents of our own life stories, but we cannot determine whether or not we are truly interesting persons who are worthy of respect and admiration from others. Our audience makes that determination in how they respond to our description of ourselves and our careers.  Do they ask follow-up questions that demonstrate sincere interest? Or do they listen politely for a few seconds and change the subject?

This might happen when the question “What do you do?” elicits a response with elements of shame or embarrassment. People can feel stuck in middle management for years, or believe that they should be “further along” in their careers than they are now in comparison with their peers.

Or maybe they work in a career that, for whatever reason, they don’t see as worthy of their skills or talents, or that doesn’t fit the life story they would rather tell about themselves: one that’s more aligned with their values, one that’s more authentic to who they are.

This is what “accounting for yourself” in modern life means. It’s being accountable to becoming your highest potential. It means gifting the world a set of contributions that only your unique personality, in your specific circumstances, can.

You may have a job, but you’re expected to find and live your vocation. “Vocation” comes from the latin vocare, which means “to call or summon.”

The world insists that if we are truly interesting people worthy of respect, then our vocation must also be our calling. And when we answer our calling, that we show up and deliver something of value in a way that only our one, irreplaceable selves can.

All of this raises the important question of what drives career change motives in adults who have significant work experience. Many people would like to author a new future for themselves, but lack the courage and/or tools to make a change. We’ll explore these questions and how adults successfully navigate these kinds of transitions in a future post.


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