I met someone recently and attempted to do that small talk thing, which, as an introvert, I generally find as pleasant as a paper cut to the eyeball. But just when I was expecting that boring old “So, what do you do?” question – she shocked me by asking me how I “spent my time.”
I loved that. That had such a sense of depth to it. Because none of us need to be defined by our jobs.
Since bailing on my acting career and starting over, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been an animal shelter volunteer, voracious reader, homemaker, student, yogi, wife, blogger, dog mom, bills manager and a quilter of quilts for all my friend's babies.
But none of those really fits what people are looking for when they meet you at a party and ask what you “do” – they want to know what you get paid for, it's become a short hand for easy categorization. It's all about money and striving and external perceptions of success.
I've always found it an uncomfortable question. When I was an actor, that answer tended to take the entire conversation hostage, and instead of being able to quietly listen to someone else, I'd have to say for the 764th time that "yes, Mrs. Doubtfire was fun to film."
Then, when I became a writer, the answer didn't get any easier, because I didn't feel like I was allowed to say that I was a writer. Often, creative jobs don't come with official credentials. Claiming to be an artist is sometimes greeted by a head tilt and an eyebrow raise that might be an appropriate response to a toddler claiming to be a seahorse.
Even for those who have more traditional jobs, titles hardly tell the whole story. My husband’s job in marketing doesn’t communicate his soft spot for iambic pentameter or his devoted yoga practice. So why do we often tend to start, and stop, with that one limiting question?
All my life I’ve wanted to contort myself, Cirque du Soleil-style, into a neat box that is easily labeled and categorized. I’m now beginning to wonder why such a restrictive confinement and sharp corners look so attractive to me. Because in truth, all the various ways that I "spend my time" now, make me feel like I am making a more significant contribution to the world than my old acting gig that came with the paycheck and the prestige.
When did contribution to the world become only measured in dollars? Why do we think we understand someone if they say that they are an interpretive dancer or a construction worker or a banker? Their job might tell us something superficial about them, but isn't it more meaningful to know that they raised foster kids or speak Italian or won a Frisbee golf championship?
Maybe your job is your passion. Maybe it's not. Maybe it fulfills you, maybe it doesn't. A job is merely one aspect of a person. You can live a meaningful life, one full of passion and purpose, even if your job is less than ideal. There is so much more to life than work and it doesn't have to define who you are.
Even though I absolutely love what I do, being a writer is not the whole story of who I am and what my life is about. When I was an actor, I let that job define my entire identity - and that didn't go that well for me. I'm trying to do it differently this time.
So, this is just a sincere thank you to those who do not define another’s worth by what they fill out on their tax form. And a gentle reminder to myself that asking someone what they "do" might not be reflective of their entire being.