What do you do?

It’s almost the first question to be asked on occasions of meeting strangers. In most instances it’s a question about your job, your career. Amongst creative folk it’s about your art, recognising that there may be a bill paying job that has very little to do with who you are. The work we do defines us economically and socially, all too often. It becomes who we are. Yet how many of us really identify with our jobs? How many of us work predominantly on callings and vocations? Is what you do to afford food much measure of who you are as a person?

I have a lot of jobs. At the moment, in no particular order I am press officer, author, PR elf, provider of website content and editor. These are all regular paying gigs to at least some degree. I am sometimes public speaker, teacher, celebrant and musician. I have all the non-paid work that comes from being a mother, and the wife of an artist. There’s intermittent voluntary work. My adult life has always been this kind of happy muddle. Who am I? Well, there’s not much point looking to my job title for an easy answer!

I wonder about the impact of specialising. I wonder about how it informs who we think we are, and how we see each other. Pay me a couple of hundred pounds an hour for my time, and I am not the same struggling creator who could barely make a pound an hour, am I? And yet…  Those who are highest paid are often furthest removed from doing the work that the rest of us really need to have done. Too many jobs don’t give much sense of satisfaction or completion, many are incredibly dull while seeming to serve little purpose. As a culture we are apparently more concerned that all the cans in the stores should be neatly facing forward than we are about the not so neat littler outside the stores.

If work is your identity, then power over your sense of self is given to whoever pays you. If you only have one job, then the power this puts in other hands is vast. The job pays for your life, it defines you, and yet someone else could take it away, deeming you unnecessary or not good enough. This makes aging and sickness much more alarming than they need to be, because these things can rob you of your work identity.

Of course this fits very well with capitalism, and a life that is to be all about money and exchange. What you earn is who you are.

We would as a society have more practical resilience if people tended to have multiple jobs. A wider skills base gives more options. Not having all your eggs in one job basket makes a person less vulnerable to changes they have no control over. It’s more interesting. You aren’t locked in to such a narrow social engagement if you have multiple jobs, and better networking and more contact also gives communities more resilience. It’s easier to walk away from a job if you don’t totally depend on it – which would tend to push working conditions up.

What do you do? Imagine a world in which you have some control over that, and where your pay packet does not define your social identity. Perhaps ‘hard work’ isn’t the most important thing in life, and perhaps if we did not feel so defined by our jobs, we’d have more room to question their usefulness. Imagine if living well was the most important thing, and on meeting people they were most likely to ask ‘What are you interested in?’

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

17 responses to “What do you do?

  • Norman Andrews

    I think work does define how other’s see you, about 20 years ago I had to give up work to care for my sick Wife, it soon became apparent that to some people I had become some type of lesser human .


    • Catherine

      I feel I’m looked at in the same way sometimes. Because I’m a young homemaker, people automatically think that I just can’t get a job because I didn’t finish college. When in reality I made the choice to leave college for personal and financial reasons and I made the choice to be a homemaker. I’m just as capable of well-paying job as a college graduate, especially in the city I’m in, but I would prefer being a homemaker.

  • siobhanwaters

    I read an article a while back about the benefits of being a generalist over a specialist, and how we should replace what’s-his-face on the £20 with a generalist like William Morris. I will dig it out for you when I get home, it was short and a lot more interesting that how I’m making it sound.

  • angharadlois

    “What are you interested in?” is worlds better, as a conversation starter 
    Possibly the best (and most successful) chat-up line I have experienced…

    The ideas you touch on here are definitely worth exploring further. We are all encouraged to believe that – somewhere, out there – is the perfect job for each of us, as if we can all slot so neatly into the little boxes that our current system has created; as if these boxes had some kind of a priori existence, and were not dreamed up by us. There are certain types of work (growing food, caring for the very young and old, passing on skills, tending the sick, burying the dead) which will always need doing, but nothing else is inevitable.

    I am wary of saying too much because I have a vague sense that I do drift about in a bubble of privilege that I don’t entirely see: I have quit several jobs on a principle, have changed from “respectable” professional jobs to much happier minimum wage “drudgery” when it suited my lifestyle, and have never experienced unemployment as anything worse than a chance to go WWOOF-ing while waiting for a contract to come through. Part of this privilege has been my willingness and ability to uproot myself and move where the work is. Now, for the first time, I find myself settled somewhere I would be reluctant to leave, and I can feel my horizons shrinking. I have done enough odd jobs to know I could turn my hand to nearly anything if I had to, but I no longer want to; I want to use my hard-won skills to do something that I believe is useful and important, and I would rather do it here if I could. This is the balancing act, I suppose: defining ourselves by our jobs, especially in economic terms, is limiting and harmful. But work – not necessarily in a PAYE sense, but certainly in the sense of using your skills in the service of your community – is part of what it means to be human, and developing a specialism can be part of that.

  • bish

    Such an interestingly appropriate post from my perspective, as I close down nearly thirty five years of professional employment and reach into the brightly lit (and therefore deeply shadowed) future before me.

    Being a Professional Engineer (deliberate capitalisation) has certainly been one of the legs on my stool, and the relinquishing of it will undoubtedly make my seat rock a little. But I’ve had other legs to fall back on [metaphorically speaking, I trust], and these will assist in my new life – in fact in our new lives together; as you know Miss quit last autumn too.

    The voluntary work I have undertaken for years will take on a new aspect, while the world outside beckons and lures me into ever longer wanders and walks in the fields and hills around me, and to the seashore beyond.

    So, who am I now? Still me, for a given value of me. What do I do? As ever, what I can. Heh, I just don’t get paid so well any more.

  • Blodeuwedd

    Very interesting! When I was in school I totally bought the company line…work hard…get a good degree…get a good job…earn lots of money…stay in that job for your entire career…be happy.

    To be fair, it worked up to a point. I did indeed have a secure well-paid job. The problem was that it was making me as miserable as hell. Around 5 years ago I quit…it was the most terrifying thing I have ever done in my life. I can actually remember crying with fear as I posted my resignation letter. I now work for an exam board, help my partner to run an funeral home founded on ethical and spiritual principles that we both buy into, I am studying for a PhD and I do odds and ends of educational writing and consultancy. I am utterly exhausted most of the time and that sometimes leads to inefficiency. I have far less money than I used to have. I last had any significant time off (by which I mean more than a day) 18 months ago. Having said that I am much happier, feel that I actually make a difference (although to be fair I also felt that as a teacher some of the time) and feel I have some sort of control over my life. The most important thing though, is that I feel like me. I have a much stronger and more secure sense of self. Oh and boredom isn’t a thing! What I don’t have is any sort of long term security…weather or not I can afford the mortgage is reviewed on an almost monthly basis. Its ok so far but I’m not sure it would suit everyone!

    I love “what are you interested in?” as a conversation starter! I will use that!

  • Christopher Blackwell

    My own work neither pays or requires very much physical activity. But it provides me with a free place to live and a great deal of time to myself and I meet a fair number of people and get to bring up any subject that I care to.

    Most would find my living style fairly privative but I do own it and can pretty much do what I want. I have turned into a story teller as well on a lot of odd subjects, some related to the business, some on what I have experienced and some of whatever that I find curious at the moment.

    So despite age, health issues, and limits, I find myself happy most of the time. I can’t think of anything that I really need that I don’t already have.

  • Éilis Niamh

    Reblogged this on The Sound of What Happens and commented:
    Next up in the One-Many OM Project: Thanks to Nimue for such important insights on living well, unifying our lives, and remembering that who we are is not synonymous with what we do. This is the stuff true human flourishing is made of.

  • Gwion

    You’ve said in the past Nimue that you’re involved in folk music circles so perhaps you’ll know what I mean here. One thing I’ve always liked about “folk” is that there’s rarely any talk of occupations or “what you do” at folk clubs and sessions. No-one seems to mind who you are or what you do to get enough money to live; you’re there to share an interest. Even better is that, usually, any compliments are delivered as “Good song” etc – judgements are not made about the singer but just about the song as sung on that occasion. In tune sessions, they usually only work because of a combined effort anyway. This seems a much healthier way of viewing life and people.

    I was lucky enough to be able to earn a living (teaching) doing something I enjoyed (for the most part) and something that I felt did make a difference but saw far too many colleagues burn themselves out because they invested too much of themselves in their job. The expression “work to live don’t live to work” seemed to have escaped them.

    • Nimue Brown

      teachers seem to be especially prone to that kind of burnout…. and yes, totally know what you mean, spaces where ‘what do you play?’ and ‘what keys can you play in’ are much more relevant.

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