I Am What I Do

“If I lived my life like you, I’d be bankrupt and on my ass by now.”

I met someone last week that said that to me. Thing is, he wasn’t referring to my life of non-stop travelling; he was referring to my choice of jobs.

He asked me what I did. I said I’m a copywriter, that I do education marketing, that I work in a school, blah blah. He gave me a half-cringe. “Why would you want to market education?” he asked. “There can’t be money in that! Why don’t you work in an agency? Or a big corporation with hundreds of brands? (He works in P&G.) Now THAT’S real advertising,” he said.

“Well,” I said, “It’s just my personal philosophy with regard to work. I just can’t ever do anything I don’t personally believe in, that’s all.” I went on to explain how in my last three jobs in the past ten years (Radio, Retail Bookstore, and Education industries), I’d chosen these particular jobs because: 1) I love music; 2) I love books; and 3) I love learning.

That’s when he said it. “If I lived my life like you, I’d be bankrupt and on my ass by now.” The line was delivered with a haughty laugh of derision just before it. It was a laugh that said, no spoken words required: “You are just a silly little girl who doesn’t know what the fuck it’s like to be in the real world. You think you can live in your little bubble, your fantasy world, that you can actually be picky and choose what you do for a living based on how you feel about it! Hah! Ridiculous! What nonsense! Don’t be a fool. Grow up. Get a real job.”

“I mean, come on,” he said, that don’t-be-ridiculous tone still heavy in his voice, “People work cuz it’s a job. You go to the office, you do your job, and you leave. You don’t have to make it a part of you. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a job. That’s… what… jobs… are…” he stressed, just like he was talking to a three-year-old.

“Really?” I asked. “We spend more time at work than we do with the people we love, or even sleeping, eating, exercising – more than the time we spend taking care of ourselves. And as much as we try to, it’s not like we were built with an on/off switch that we can totally, completely drop everything work-related at the door when we come home, and not think about it anymore. It worms its way into our psyche. It might be the last thing we think about before we go to bed. It frustrates us, angers us, upsets us, it makes it hell for our spouses to be with us sometimes. A job is never just a job.”

Have you ever watched the US game show “Identity”? Contestants have to match individuals to their “identities”, usually occupation-based, going by what they look like. Host Penn Jillette then, in his usual over-the-top dramatic fashion, points at the individual and goes, “IS. THAT. YOUR. IDENTITY???”

Fact is, you are what you do.

I don’t know any individual who truly cared about something and wasn’t doing it. A person who’s passionate about helping people will not be an accountant. A lawyer, maybe, but more often than not, a doctor, nurse, fireman, social worker, counselor, physiotherapist, nutritionist… the list goes on.

Yes, they could work as an auditor and earn truckloads of money, and use that money to help others in their free time. But you know what happens then? This person will get to a point where he or she will wake up one day and go, “Wait. This isn’t enough. This is not really what I want to do with my life. This isn’t who I want to be. This isn’t right. Why am I doing this? Why am I not doing what I really want to do?”

That day hit me, not in bed as I slammed my snooze button at 5:45am, but in the corporate meeting room one dreary afternoon. On the agenda: How can we sell more books, make more money?

Point to note, I don’t think I was too shabby in my job, but there was always this little voice nagging me in some dusty corner of my brain, going, “Why are you selling people stuff they don’t need? Do they really need a whole set of 48 different coloured pens that glow in the dark? Really? Seriously?”

And so I focused on selling books. Books are always good. Books make you smart. Books help you grow. Books introduce new worlds, broaden perspectives. My job wasn’t just selling books. It was encouraging people to read. More nobly put, it was promoting a greater level of literacy in our nation. (Pfft.)

But that day, in that meeting, as the voices around me droned on and on about “profits” and “losses”, something snapped. “I don’t care!!” that voice inside my head screamed. “I don’t want to have anything to do with your stupid bottom line. I just want to get lost amongst these aisles and daydream about characters and their lives. You’re taking away the magic of reading,” that voice whimpered.

But still, all we can do (as slaves to the chain bookstore), is try and ignore that people up there (aka management) are trying to make money from all this. All we can do is focus on what we love about it, and keep at it. It’s what made HARRIS one of the best places I loved to go to – because the staff there really cared. They loved books, they loved reading, and it showed, oh, it showed.

And then reality got in the way. And the bookstore, as many others have, shut. Watching them close one store after another was not only heartbreaking, it was my wakeup call. I refused to do anything that had to do with a corporation trying to squeeze money out of people. No more bottom lines, I declared to myself. I WILL NOT SLOG FOR PROFIT.

And so I chose education. Because, really, how can you ever go wrong with education? At the end of the day, people are learning professional skills and personal lessons, and they will go on to become more improved versions of themselves.

So yes, it may be entirely idealistic on my part to want to work in jobs that I personally believe in. Yes, I do realize that practically speaking, I may very well find myself indeed jobless and on the streets at some point because I can’t find a suitable position that is in line with my values and thinking.

And yes, there are days I think about how, if I actually did a job selling people stuff they don’t really need, I could be a big shot manager by now, and perhaps earning much more than I am now. With that money, travelling would be so much easier, I could go back to school, and it could fund so many more charity projects I want to work on. Just think about that!

But I can’t. In my case, the end simply does not justify the means. Because a job is never just a job to me. It fills my waking moments, it’s what I wear on my sleeve, right next to my emotions. It’s my badge of honour. It’s my name tag. It’s my identity. I am what I do. And so, I have to do what I am.



[P.S. This is truly my personal perspective about my own job choices. This article does not judge anyone’s choices but mine. P.P.S. I love accountants.]


One thought on “I Am What I Do

  1. Companies and people with this mentality are experiencing a huge purge, we are moving into an age where if there is no emotional connection to a higher purpose goal or something that is directly related to social responsibility then the overly comfortable consumer will treat such brands, products or services as noise and not important to their existence. He sounds like your mediocre consumer. I welcome future market challenges, because every-time there’s a major dip in the economy and people like this lose everything, it forces them to re-evaluate their character and to consider if they have true values or if they have manufactured a farce.

    For the ones who never wake up, let them live in their vicious circle of slavery and self medicating escapism via weekend binge drinking & walking dead, let them be ruled until no one is left to rule them, then they will come begging to those who actually create, who do things to help this world, to provide them their future, we still need them.

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