SO WHAT DO YOU DO?

Perhaps you’re like me and chose a path in the service and support industry (and find great joy within it), and this question of “what do you do?” is filled low-grade shame and a highly-specific need to justify your life choices. If you work in a service, success, or support industry role – or any position that’s specifically designed and measured by helping others succeed – you can likely relate.

I’ve had people ask me what I actually want to do once my career path progresses. At my response, I’ve had people raise their eyebrows, “he had so much potential,” their face implies. People have made jokes about what they assume my salary might be. I’ve had people invasively corner me in a room, inquiring how to fix their iPhone, home theater surround sound, dishwasher, CRM software, garage door, car, or email app – without remembering my name as anything other than, “you’re that IT guy, right?”

Others have written more eloquently than I on this often-dreaded question, yet I feel that I must be fair and confess: Yes, I too have asked others what they do, where they work, and many other variations of this same question. Most times I’ve asked it with no ill-intent. Other times, I’ve asked it with secret envy to see if they’re as important as their wardrobe or conversational flair implies. Occasionally I’ve asked this to “size them up” and look at where we comparatively rank on the socioeconomic totem pole. Most often though, I’ve warmly asked this to hear about what’s personally important to them and start a friendly dialog. So before proceeding further, I must likewise assume that most people ask this question with the same benign intent. Despite this kindly assumption, my mind is still filled with a lot of noise and self-accusation when the question is posed yet again. What do I do?

QUESTIONS, CONDITIONS, AND PERSONAL LIFE MISSIONS

As much as I’d like to blame my anxiety or self-shaming on the awkward dynamics of a “social mixer” or the potentially self-serving nature of a conversation starter, I don’t believe that’s the problem. I’m coming to see that I’m the problem. That sounds harsh, so stick with me for a moment.

I’m asking too much from my career.

It’s not too much to strive toward a career that provides for my needs. It’s not too much to expect my career to give a warm, satisfying sense of a job well done. Work and employment are honorable things and reveling in that honor isn’t too much to ask.

A good job where you’re are able to apply your skills and abilities while also paying the bills is a tremendous gift – one that not every person enjoys. If you’re appreciated for your work and effort, that’s a fantastic (and sadly, rare) bonus.

The root problem comes, however, when we ask our career to do more than it was intended to provide.

It’s easy to hijack our careers and ask them to do too much for us: We start asking our jobs to provide an identity, a name, a sense of worth, or a validation of our life choices. Don’t get me wrong, careers have a way of beautifully doing all of these things – and it’s great when they do – but when that becomes our primary request from our jobs, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

At the end of the day, a job is a job: Good work is still work, and even the best job is still a job – and I’m still me, and you’re still you. Yes, careers should align with our purpose (and even affirm it once in a while!), but it can’t become our source of identity and purpose. That’s asking too much. Identity must be found elsewhere.

While the metaphor may be lost on some, just like raising children, our careers have a way of filling our hearts with a beautiful pride – and the next minute humbling us to the lowest of degrees. The problem isn’t in the ups and downs per se, it’s in what I’m expecting my kids (or career) to provide. I expect great things from my kids – but they aren’t my source of identity. They don’t define me. Or to say it another way, I don’t live through my kids. Similar to parents who attempt to live through their kids’ accomplishments (something children should never have to provide!), we too have a tendency to strive to live through our career as well. It’s just asking too much.

A KIND WORD

If you’ve chosen a career in helping others succeed, survive, or navigate their tasks, jobs, or lives in any way or form, thank you. If that career path chose you instead, again, thank you for sticking with it:

Thank you for selflessly seeking to enable others in their pursuits.
Thank you for caring genuinely about the interruptions, achievements, and challenges others face.
Thank you for showing up every day, despite the needs in your own life, to sacrificially meet the needs of others.
Thank you for enduring nonsensical complaints with class and integrity.
Thank you for refunding my money.
Thank you for treating me like a person.
Thank you for telling me that your product or service isn’t what I need.
Thank you for not treating me like a “free user.”
Thank you for being the helpful face for software release projects gone wrong and under-informed salespeople.
Thank you for going to bat for me in front of your team or manager.
Thank you for sticking up for what you know I need, even when I request something entirely different.
Thank you for giving up time with your friends and family to reply or fix my issue.
Thank you for caring about tone, voice, and clarity.
Thank you for training your peers and passing along your skills and knowledge.
Thank you for kindly dealing with my messes and mistakes in kindness.

SO, WHAT DO YOU DO AGAIN?

So what do you do, I ask again? I’ll tell you. You do hard work that matters. You carry the burdens of everyone around you and somehow still manage to help others smile. You’re not tending to an Inbox, a ticket queue, a trial leads or opportunities list, or live demo schedule. You bear authentic care for the needs of real people.

What you do isn’t who you are, and you are so much more than what you do! Resist the temptation to ask your work and career to be more for you than its designed to be. Break the mold that insists that your value and identity as a human directly links to your work. Your work isn’t your identity. Live in your work, not through it.