To our chagrin, modern people tend to define themselves by the work we do. It’s hard not to because so much of our lives are filled with work. If not work itself, we are often getting rested and ready for work or taking vacations and breaks from work. Many of our last names are also drawn from the work our ancestors have done like Baker, Hooker, Taylor, and Brewer. In these ways, it becomes clear why work becomes such a major descriptor of our lives.
Even our biggest political arguments focus on how we view work. Marxism derives some of its most pronounced principles from the ‘Labor Theory of Value’, which says that it’s work that provides anything of value, and any of that value taken by a capitalist as profit is exploitation. The Capitalist might argue the building of the business and the correct deployment of capital is also ‘work’ and there would be a big argument. As strongly as they disagree, they both see the value in work.
The desire to separate our work from how we define ourselves probably springs from a few different places. The Puritan American belief that industry is virtuous sometimes morphs into workaholism, where somebody’s greed, ambition, or fear of failure drives them to elevate work to an unhealthy precipice until health, family, and friendships suffer. Another reason you might not want work to define you is that your current job may be a springboard to your next, greater exploit. A waiter who is also pursuing an acting career comes to mind. Lastly, you may be doing work that makes the world worse off, and who would want to introduce themselves at a party with an opener about causing great despair?
Workaholism is a problem, no doubt, and dying early, broken homes, and stress-related diseases are not highly advertised indicators of achieving the American dream. Finding and maintaining a healthy balance between work and life should always be a goal. Good managers should know that relaxed, happy workers who work from a sense of mission outperform those who toil to suppress some internal fear.
So, the pushback on defining ourselves by our work makes sense. If you perform a meaningless task, this does not mean you are a meaningless person and to confine yourself to those bounds doesn’t make much sense. But, also, the virtues the Puritans held dear did have a basis in fact. If you do good work, you, your loved ones, and society will be better off.
Maybe the answer isn’t to avoid defining yourself by what you do, but to spend time finding why your work matters, or finding work that matters. Benjamin Franklin asserted success sprang from ‘doing well by doing good’, which means that the things that improve the world also can put money in our pocket. This is not easy, and arguably, the West has the most opportunity to be selective about the work they do. For that, we should be grateful and hope that the work we do may indirectly bring prosperity and liberty to those who are not so fortunate. For example, if you’ve chosen the beautiful profession of teaching, you are directly expanding your student’s ability to be selective about their work, whether or not they appreciate it now.
There are times when you should feel free to describe yourselves to others by the things you do most of the waking hours of your life, and you shouldn’t feel empty inside doing it. If you’re lucky, you’ve found a job that allows you to provide something to humanity, which would be a good way to introduce yourself at a party.