Tell me, who are you?

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”  – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

You are not your job. Or if you are, then baby, you need to get a life, because as many of us have discovered to our dismay, we might be our jobs, but our jobs sure as hell aren’t us — they’ll continue long after we’re gone, with someone else sitting in the driver’s seat. That kind of relationship is not reciprocal. And you know what they say about relationships that aren’t reciprocal? They suck. And they’ll suck the life right out of you. Tyler Durden knew that for a fact.

I worked for a long time in a big city where I had no moorings, no roots, no anchor, and the one constant was my workplace. I didn’t — or at least only rarely did — love my job, but I felt immense respect for the organization and moreover, I loved that when people asked what I did, I could say “journalist,” name my employer and feel proud of both facts. I wasn’t my job, but my job was a huge part of my identity, and it took up far more real estate in my life than it should have because I worked anti-social hours (that is, while the world was out socializing I was at work), I hated the city I lived in and had no non-work friends or strong attachments there. I used to have hours-long phone calls with a friend in another city every Sunday, and the two of us would delve into the impossibility of our situations (she didn’t like where she was much either) and every so often we would stop and ask ourselves, “would this matter as much if we had actual lives?” And we were pretty sure the answer was “no.”

That’s something that’s more likely to happen to single people; those happily with spouses and families, or those who haven’t moved far away from the social networks that previously supported them in uncertain times, are less likely to lose themselves in their work. But they’re just as likely to let it become an important part of their identity, and that’s why unplanned job loss can be so world-destroying. When you’re your job and you lose your job, who are you?

I have to stop myself now, when people ask me what I do, from saying that I’m a journalist, though sometimes it still slips out (and sometimes I rationalize it by thinking that just because I’m no longer directly involved in daily news gathering doesn’t mean I’m not still a journalist in my heart), and I’ve wrestled with what to call myself. For now I’m using “writer.” Sometimes “writer-editor.”

Don’t forget to factor this in when you’re making plans for a possible layoff or job change. What will you say when you’re asked but can’t give the usual answer? Who am I if not …? This is a good exercise even if your employment is reasonably stable, to make sure that you still have an identity outside of it. Many of us, while building our careers, forgot to have lives as well.

I was just reminded of a rant a former colleague used to go on when a woman was referred to in a story on first reference as a “mother.” “Before she was a mother she was a human being, a woman with a life,” my colleague would roar across the newsroom. (My personal pet peeve is referring to a woman as mother twice in the same sentence, “The mother said she was worried about her son…” instead of “the woman” which gives her agency outside of motherhood. But I digress.)

Early settlers used to build cairns — piles of stones that would mark a route or a cache of goods. When you’re building a cairn, you need it to last so you give it a good foundation, and make sure that the rocks you place on top  of it are stable. Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” What is your Descartes statement — the thing that you know about yourself that is the foundation for everything else? Use it to start building your cairn. What is the next thing about yourself that exists unrelated to anyone else? Start adding in your other important identities — son, daughter, mother, father, husband, wife. Bowler. Lover of wine. Storyteller. Listener. Damn fine card player. It’s a way of prioritizing the important things. In a perfect world, your job — not your vocation, if the kind of work you do is important to you, but your current, changeable job — should be a little pebble at the top. If it’s not, if the thing that can be taken away from you at any moment by the vagaries of the economy is part of your foundation, then maybe it’s time to reexamine your priorities.

And if there are places where things become unstable because the rocks won’t sit together properly, or if your cairn stops short of where you think it needs to go, examine for yourself what’s missing, and consider where you might find the stones to shore it up. And if that means getting a life, so be it.

 

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