I’m sure we are all familiar with what I assume is the most frequently asked question in a first encounter or meeting with another person: “So, what do you do?” I cannot be the only one who is intrigued by this very common phenomenon. In terms of cultural commentary, I wonder what this says about our American society. What does this question mean in this context? What exactly is meant by “do” here?
What strikes me most about this question is that in all likelihood, it is not a request for information regarding an individual’s personal interests or hobbies, what he or she does for fun, to relax, during “spare time” when not working, let alone those activities that one most cares and is passionate about. No, this question is asking what a person does for work in terms of a job, occupation, or career.
In the attempt to get to know someone (or, if we’re truly honest, our typical and unconscious default approach to maintain conventional expectations within such conversations), what we initially choose to focus on is the type of occupational work he or she happens to do, not the unique Being he or she is. This, in turn, reveals an unspoken implication and cultural assumption regarding the nature of a person in American society, namely, that a person’s identity is defined by the work or occupational labor that he or she performs, that essentially “you are your job.” While probably most if not all of us would immediately challenge and oppose this value-statement, we could assess the seriousness of the situation by considering whether and how often we each have indirectly reinforced it by asking a new acquaintance that particular question. My guess is that we have all done this and likely much more than we would care to admit.
As existentialists we should be concerned about the fact that within our American socio-cultural context human beings are largely defined in terms of their jobs and social roles rather than by whom they truly are as individual persons. We must be more aware of such insidious and seemingly innocuous processes of dehumanization, which I believe we are ethically obligated to fight against and change.
This leads me to question the extent to which people in our culture have internalized this destructive value-message and thus see their value as human beings exclusively in terms of an occupational role. Are children from increasingly younger ages not being socially conditioned to become adults who are unable to separate their personal human value from their jobs and careers? Accompanying the identification of individual value and occupational work seems to be a corresponding neglect and devaluing of personal interests, passions, dreams, ambitions, and potentialities. While not always true, often it appears to be that for many people, their perceived value becomes anchored to occupational work that they don’t particularly, or perhaps at all, truly value. That is, many of us spend our lives working in jobs and careers that we don’t find meaningful, fulfilling, or valuable.
Although in a certain sense, unfortunately, it seems like a foregone conclusion and sad cliché to assert that “work” is what you do when you’re not doing what you really want to do, and therefore doesn’t authentically represent one’s true identity and source of self-fulfillment, perhaps this is precisely why such a view should be critically challenged. Given the amount of time and energy, how much of ourselves, of our lives that we surrender to our occupational work, shouldn’t it be more personally meaningful, fulfilling, and valuable? In light of its consuming nature, shouldn’t our occupational work more authentically mirror our deepest passions, interests, abilities, and potential?
However, inherent practical limitations must certainly be acknowledged here as well. Practically speaking, it is apparently true that for many of us, such a view may merely constitute an extremely impractical “dream” that at best is unrealistic and at worst is simply absurd. Many of us, perhaps even the majority of us, do not have the “luxury” of actualizing our true identities through our occupational work and its social roles. It may indeed be the case that only an elite minority in American society is in a socio-economic position to work in jobs and career fields that also happen to directly reflect their most significant existential needs and concerns. This is undoubtedly true within the cultural contexts of many other countries and is especially so within our American society, given the economic recession and its severe consequences for millions of individuals.
While it may be particularly unavoidable at present, it seems to me that generally, and at potentially any time, most of us face a difficult dilemma and agonizing tension between competing existential needs. We desperately long and yearn to devote our lives to becoming our true selves, to pursuing activities and work that nourish and support our self-actualization, that are intimately and directly connected to our core passions and sense of life meaning/purpose. Yet, we also have to pay the bills and provide for the most basic material needs for ourselves and our families. I think at the end of the day we often must “do what we have to do” in affirmation of the latter; anything less would be morally irresponsible and practically unfeasible. And yet, I do believe that ultimately we must also intentionally affirm the former, as it does not occur automatically without serious personal commitment and not to do so results in an existence that is inauthentic, empty, and tragically unfulfilling.
I think that our great existential challenge here is to construct and maintain an optimal balance within this foundational tension. We can do occupational work that doesn’t necessarily fulfill our deepest personal needs without “settling” and selling out our individual integrity, and we can perhaps experience aspects of deeper self-fulfillment in such work or directly pursue further actualization in ways that are not socially or relationally irresponsible.
Above all, I urge first myself, and then you, to do whatever is necessary and possible within present life circumstances to intentionally engage in life activities and work that nourish our deepest passions and help us to become the human beings that we can and are meant to be. Let us not consume and lose ourselves in pursuits that are not personally meaningful and fulfilling, that we don’t really care about or truly value. Let us not define our value as human beings in terms of our jobs and careers but rather on our own terms, on the basis of that which makes us more fully alive and helps us to experience life more deeply and meaningfully. As Howard Thurman has so wisely stated: “Don’t ask what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come fully alive and then go and do it, because what the world needs are human beings who have become fully alive.”
— Scott Kiser