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Your Job Doesn’t Define You (But Maybe It Should)

Once a year or so, as part of a neighborhood emergency preparedness effort,  my local church hands around a sheet that asks what I can bring to bear in the case of a natural disaster. Handymen list out their many carpentry skills, doctors offer their medical expertise, Boy Scout leaders itemize their equipment and supplies, and so on. But when the list comes around to me, I dutifully put pen to paper and write “I consume resources.”

The sad truth is that, in the case of a natural disaster, my worth to the community would be minimal at best. But what’s my worth to the community today? And how should that affect my own view of myself?

One of the things I talk about in my book Wet Water is the importance of not allowing our jobs to define who we are. It’s a natural tendency, of course, to allow our job titles, pay scale, or role in the organization influence our sense of value and self-worth. It seems to be build into us, even in the very language we use. Notice how when we talk to children we ask them what they want to be when they grow up, not what they want to do. The unspoken assumption is that what we do for a living defines who we are. But by defining ourselves by what we do rather than who we are, we place ourselves in jeopardy. Anyone who has ever been fired or experienced an unexpected layoff doesn’t have to told that this can have a devastating effect on one’s sense of self-worth.

This phenomenon is psychologically well-founded and, to a tremendous degree, self-evident. There’s little that can be said to counter what is already well understood. But that’s never stopped me before. And so with that said, let me now disagree with myself.

If you think that what we do defines us today, it’s nothing compared to past history. Take my name, for example. Schiffbauer means shipbuilder in German. Take a wild guess what my ancestors did. Today, many last names are rooted in the occupations of our predecessors. Some are pretty easy to pick out, such as Baker, Cook, Mason, and Miller. Others require a knowledge of old languages. For example, Cooper is old English for barrel maker, while Wainwright means wagon builder. The list goes on. My point is this: in days of yore, your position and worth to the community became your name—your job became who you were to those around you.

But now let me suggest something in addition to this, and that is that my ancestors were not called the shipbuilders just because they built ships, but because they build very good ships, that their ships were highly valued in the local economy. They were craftsmen that took a great deal of pride in what they did. My guess is that calling my ancestor shipbuilder was a badge of honor that others placed upon my great-great-whatever, much like calling someone a development guru, a serial entrepreneur, or the go-to guy might be today. It’s sort of like when Austin Powers said “Danger’s my middle name.”

With this in mind, let me propose that it’s not what you do that defines you, but how you do what you do, the passion and commitment you bring to what you do, and how what you do contributes to the community. In what way are you a craftsman, channeling your passions into providing a valuable service to the community? Think of it this way: if you had no name, and it was up others to name you based on the value you provide to the community, what would they call you? Speaking for myself, I hope it wouldn’t be Raca (meaning worthless or good for nothing), though if there’s ever an earthquake, I’m afraid it may well be.

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