Is who we are what we do?: A deliberately controversial post.

Usually these posts start out with someone complaining about being at a cocktail party and being asked what they do.  The person complaining generally does not have a job.  Ze is financially independent or a SAHP or HouseSpouse or unemployed etc.  Depending on who is writing, the post becomes an ode to not working for The Man (and how you can only discover who you really are through Early Retirement and going to exploitative conferences in Portland, OR), a discussion about how taking care of hearth and family is the Most Important Job, or how to turn awkward and unfair conversations into networking opportunities instead of reasons to feel bad about ourselves.  And they all talk about how we’re so much more than our jobs and we shouldn’t be defined by our jobs.

This post is going to go a slightly different route.  I don’t know about #2, but I haven’t been at a cocktail party that wasn’t attached to a conference for *ages* (me either!) and when you’re at conference, you’ve got those helpful name-tags plus everyone knows that more likely than not you have a discipline-specific PhD.  Especially once you no longer look like a graduate student.

So this post is specifically going to focus on the question– is who you are what you do?

We say, Yes and  No.

We were both raised Catholic.  (We are recovering.)  And if you’re Catholic or Episcopalian, then belief is not as important as Good Works.  You’re not a nice person if you torture puppies even if you feel sad when you torture them.  If you ignore the impulse to torture puppies even though you desperately want to, you have as much of a shot at salvation as someone identical who would never dream of torturing puppies, maybe more, because you resisted a temptation that most people don’t have.

In economics terms, we tend to only believe preferences when they’re “realized,” which is just a fancy way of saying, “what you did”.  You’re showing what you preferred through your actions and your choices (very behaviorist!).  In that scenario, desire to torture or not torture puppies is meaningless– the lack of torture means that you preferred not to torture given the circumstances.  You are not a puppy-torturer unless you actually torture puppies (given your budget constraint).  We don’t know what’s in the black box or what the shape of your utility function is, but we can see exactly where your utility function hits your budget constraint.

In some sense, what we do defines us.  There may be some inner person trying to get out, but we can’t measure it unless it comes out.  We are what we do.

But also, no… Who are we if we’re not what what we do?   We are what we like and don’t like.  We are how we organize information. We’re a bundle of preferences and actions– we are what the outside world sees of us, though usually we are not how the world perceives us.  The patriarchy tends to twist our actions and our very existence to fit its own warped narrative.  We are bundles of energy and stardust masquerading as humans for now.

We are social scientists, through years of training.  Our disciplines shape how we see the world: how we make sense of the external world and our internal thoughts.  The narratives we tell ourselves, how we make decisions.  One of us used to be a mathematician, but that aspect has been dulled and replaced over time with graduate training and day-to-day work.  We are feminists of various flavors, and that shapes how we interact with people and information.  What we are directly affects what we do, and what we do shows who we are.

However, we are not our jobs.  They’re what we get money for, and they’re not all that we do.  We will still be social scientists without our current jobs.  We will still be teachers without our jobs, even if we never give another formal lecture.  We’ll still be cat-lovers and feminists and book-lovers and partners and friends and almost everything else that labels who we are.  We may no longer be “professor” without our jobs, but very little will change in terms of personal essence in the instant a job is left and a new job taken (or not taken).  Personal growth and change can (and will) come before a job change and after, but we don’t suddenly lose who we are or become a new person with a change in employment.  Maybe a happier (or temporarily sadder) person, but that kind of happiness seems to be more of an “estar” (in the moment temporary kind of being) thing than a “ser” (permanent kind of being) thing.

Who are you?  And how do you even define that?

61 Responses to “Is who we are what we do?: A deliberately controversial post.”

  1. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    When I first read your title, I immediately thought of volunteerism and instantly thought, well yeah, you are what you do. There is a big difference between the person who volunteers for stuff vs the person who says they want to volunteer someday when they retire or have more time. If it really is that important to you, you’d find a way to do it, even if it is just one day per year. ( that was the way I started…btw, one event per year and then it slowly grew To be of the bigger facets of who I am.)

    I think a job can define you if it’s your passion. Scratch that, a profession can define you. I will always be an engineer through and through. It’s how I am wired. Even if I decide that I am going to leave “the man” and start my own restaurant or become an artist I’d still use engineering principals in those roles.

    I personally think anyone who doesn’t think what they do does not define them is in-secure that they don’t do enough (or are spending too much time doing the wrong things). I am pretty sure our PTO president and brownie troupe leader and robotics coach isn’t feeling insecure about leaving her career to be a SAHM. She loves and embraces every minute of it because she just diverted that energy and passion she gave to her job over to her family’s life. I think people who don’t embrace who they are aren’t using or working towards their full potential or point fingers at why they can’t achieve something.

    When you witness a single mom, on her own, get her phd in engineering…you know anything is possible and having kids doesn’t mean your own life is over. In fact, embracing your potential will help your children succeed as well because now she has a much better paying job and can work fewer hours to provide for her kids.

    There’s my deliberately controversial answer.

    • bogart Says:

      So, out of curiosity, would you still be an engineer if you hadn’t trained as an engineer?

      • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

        I call my mom the polish mcguyver and she has a 6th grade education. So yes, I think certain people are born with an aptitude to build things and be innovative with problem solving. My mom never had elegant solutions to problems but it always was functional. I think training helps you come up with better solutions and/or get to the answer faster (like through design of experiments vs trial and error but the thought process is much the same.)

      • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

        I guess most people call non-educated engineers “handymen” of which my uncle was one.

  2. ana Says:

    I agree with Sandy’s answer, and like the analogy about volunteering. You may well be a sum of contradicting thoughts and feelings, but “what you do”, your actions, define your relationship to the world and your impact upon it. I think the complaints about “what you do” refer to the usage of “what you do” to solely mean your job. And while there are definitely people that are consumed and defined by the same thing they happen to get paid for, there are others that do the job, collect the paycheck, and then do what really matters to them.
    I like this post, it is motivating on a rainy Monday morning while we try to figure out how to deal with completely unexpected sick kid situation.

    • OMDG Says:

      The thing about volunteering is that — if you buy into the behaviorist perspective — a person only volunteers because the benefits outweigh the costs. It’s just that the benefits are less easily measured. They include feeling good about yourself, the sense that you are helping others and contributing to the greater good, sometimes self-righteousness, i.e. that you are “better” than other people who don’t volunteer, feelings of appreciation (real or imagined), a sense that you are doing the “right thing”, social contact with other like-minded people, assuaging guilt — just to name a few. The “costs” associated with volunteering tend to be more tangible (time and money, hard physical labor). I’m not trying to cast a judgement on it or people who volunteer, I’m just saying that even apparently altruistic actions can be thought of from a behaviorist standpoint, which I find interesting.

      Anyway, digression….

      • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

        I think you are right. Volunteering is usually self serving, but rarely in the church lady egoistic way you describe. I am thankful that there are people out there who want to coach a sports team that my children can also benefit from. Yes, most of the time these coaches have a child of their own on the team that drives them to volunteer, but others benefit as well.

        The reality is that if you want to live in a desirable community with lots to do, a lot of people have to step up and do their part. That is what separates An ordinary community from an extraordinary one. If I just think of my little town, people are organizing festivals, car shows, plant and maintain flowers, are ski patrollers, volunteer fire fighters, participate in parades, are ushers at plays and music venues and museums, all for free. In some cases, the benefits are tangible (like free ski tickets or show passes), but I know no-one who does it to feel superior to others. Either someone In their immediate family benefits in some way, or they themselves do and there is no shame in that.

  3. Miser Mom Says:

    So, of course, this is the time of the year that everybody asks me questions like, “So are you done? Are you off for the summer?” and I keep getting caught off-guard by these questions. Because for me, the summer means the REAL job is beginning; I get to do my research and write up all those papers I had put aside so that I could deal with, y’know, students and committee work.

    Some people ask it differently. They ask, “do you have any fun plans for the summer?” and they think it’s funny when my one-word answer is: “MATH!”.

    So I’ll echo what others say: yes, a huge part of me is that I am what my profession made me.

    On the other hand, I’m also spending a lot of time this summer training for an IronMan. (As I type this, I feel guilty because the only training I’ve done since Saturday was an 80-mile bike ride — how warped is that?). But I don’t feel like I *am* a triathlete, or even honestly like I am an an athlete. This is just something I’m doing. As soon as the triathalon is over, I’m going back to math-world full time!

  4. OMDG Says:

    Before I forget to say this, I wanted to tell you that you encapsulate the underlying belief system of being an Episcopalian to an ABSOLUTE TEE. Bravo. I am going to steal this.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I was fortunate to have an excellent religious studies professor teaching Sunday school half the time when I was in middle school/high school. We also watched Life of Brian and dissected it based on Anglican theology. :)

  5. bogart Says:

    I understand the irritation with the question and remain perpetually amused — moreso now that I’m mothering a smallish kid — by the friend of my mom’s who was a SAHM but felt that this was devalued/a conversation stopper and would answer, “I run a home-based juvenile injury prevention program.” But, eh, it’s just a conversational opener — not the best one, perhaps, but probably also not the worst (satisfice, much?). Hardly seems worth blogging over (not you, the other allegedly annoyed bloggers), but then again, I don’t blog, so …

    • OMDG Says:

      I have been on the receiving end of those snippy replies on more than one occasion. Once I asked a mom whether she had started writing children’s books in addition to her gig as a SAHM, and she got all up in my grill about how wasn’t “just” being a mom enough. Sheesh! Sorry I asked about something YOU’D expressed interest in doing in the past!

      • Liz Says:

        The way I’ve experienced it, that kind of rudeness often comes from a place of fear, anger, or shame. She might not have realized how difficult it is to parent a child all day long – especially if her child is particularly gifted or particularly challenged. As long as the original question came from a place of love (asking about her interest, e.g.). Perhaps it is similar: the annoyed bloggers are mourning a life they once could have had or thought they would have.

    • bogart Says:

      Eh. I don’t think it was either snippy or coming from a place of fear, anger, or shame — I think it showed a good sense of humor. Certainly that’s how the line’s retold (and used) in our household, both my original one and the one where I’m now part of the executive team. I’m a WOHM, but I absolutely consider what I do to involve running a home-based juvenile injury prevention program.

      • Liz Says:

        Your story seemed humorous. OMDG’s was the one I was commenting on.

      • bogart Says:

        Oh, got it — thanks, sorry, confused.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I also love the home-based juvenile injury prevention program answer. Now I’m trying to think of a similarly great answer for me. Fun!

  6. Cloud Says:

    I’ll have to come back and read the comments later, when I have a bit more time. Right now, I just want to add one thing: I think that you can pick up a lot of attributes from your career, because you are likely to internalize its value system. It is very hard to fight that. I think it goes beyond training. You’re trained in how to approach and solve problems in a given field, but there is also a value system inherent in that field, and unless you really consciously fight it, you’re likely to adopt that value system eventually. I think this is why it is so hard to change systems from the inside- by the time you’ve been in a field long enough to have the power to change anything, you have probably absorbed the value system enough that you don’t want to change it anymore, or at least you only want to make smaller changes.

    I think about this a lot, because I want to change how we manage people and how we expect people to do their work, and I think that is part of what made it hard for me in my last job- that company’s value system did not match how I view people management.

    So anyway, I think that what you do for a job can have a big influence on who you are, but I agree that you are not your job.

  7. contingentcassandra Says:

    Interestingly (and probably relevantly — is that a word? — given the religious roots of many U.S. cultural traditions), you can reach similar theological conclusions regarding work and identity if you start from the Calvinist tradition (in which I was raised, and which is still very much part of my worldview, albeit in a form that would probably surprise and scandalize most Puritans). There are members of my church who could explain this far better than I, but I think it starts with the idea that what the laity does/secular life in general is important (clergy are not set apart in the same way that they are in the Catholic tradition — or at least the Catholic tradition as it existed at the time of the Reformation, which is different in a number of significant ways from the c20/21 Catholic church). The other key idea is that, while we believe in salvation through grace (faith is a gift of grace, so grace is at the root of the thing) rather than works, we also believe in sanctification — the idea that the proper (and perhaps to some degree inevitable) response to God’s gift of grace is to live in a way that shows appreciation of the magnitude and importance of that gift through our behavior (as I understand it, the prosperity gospel — also an outgrowth of Calvinism — is sort of a twisted, oversimplified version of this doctrine, perhaps best encapsulated in people using the word “blessed” to describe material prosperity, rather than the ability to make the most of whatever talents God has given one to advance in some small way the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, regardless of one’s material, health etc., etc. circumstances). So, we in the Calvinist tradition end up thinking and talking a lot about what we do (as individuals, as a church), too, and using words like “vocation” and “calling” to refer to secular work (paid or unpaid). (And we probably come down in a more or less similar place on the torturing-puppies front, though I’d guess that grace/justification might be evidenced in a lack of desire to torture puppies, or at least — since even the justified still have to deal with essentially fallen natures — in an enhanced ability to resist the desire to torture puppies).

    All of the above definitely affects the connection between my professional identity and my overall sense of self, perhaps especially since my professional identity is complicated by the nature of my position (contingent, teaching-only contract, research done only on the side). I definitely have the sense that I ought to be doing something useful, and sometimes wonder how useful my research is, even as I’m aware that it in some ways closely resembles much of what we do in church, in that both are, essentially, storytelling in service of larger interpretive — and often also, in both cases, ethical — narratives. In some ways, my teaching-only position stems from, and satisfies, that felt/self-imposed requirement: to some extent, I put myself on a teaching track fairly early in grad school, because I felt that that was the more socially useful part of the job, even though — and here’s where things get complicated — I’m not sure that teaching is really, to use the theological language, my greatest gift/talent, though I’m certainly good enough at, and very conscientious about, it. I derive considerably more satisfaction from writing and research, and even think there’s something of a useful/ethical element in that research (I study the literature of a major social movement), but still have some problem, at middle age, convincing myself that it would be ethical to spend most of my time on that work (assuming I could find a job that supported that focus, which is a big assumption, given the current class divisions in the academy, and waning support for humanities research in general).

    So I guess maybe I’m evidence that one can stay in the academy and still experience such quandaries. In fact, I recently realized from conversational context that a friend (an ABD who made a considered move from the academy to closely-related government work during the ’70s Ph.D. glut), who had sometimes mildly hurt my feelings by making comments about how little professors work probably doesn’t think of me as a “professor,” though I carry the title, and claim it. Basically, when he talks about “professors,” he’s thinking of mostly research-oriented professors (the R1 or perhaps tenured/tenure-track R2 model), while I’m very aware that the majority of people who carry that title, even in the days of mostly-tenure track appointments, have always spent the majority of their time teaching. On the other hand, there are plenty of people (especially in state legislatures) who seem to have trouble imagining any kind of professorial work that doesn’t involve standing in front of a class (even the bulk of the teaching work — prep, grading, email or office hours consultations, etc. — is apparently invisible to them). In fact, I think that’s part of the class struggle going on in the academy right now — do we recognize teaching-oriented faculty as “real” (i.e. tenure-track) professors, and (to be fair about the pressures on research-oriented faculty, especially those whose research doesn’t bring in outside funding) what effect does that have on the recognition of research — especially humanities research — as also being “real,” legitimate professorial work?

    Well, that was long and meandering, for which I apologize; I think the bottom line is that “professors” aren’t really sure who they/we are these days, either.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I actually had a conversation about the works vs. faith topic with a kid who was coming back from a bible verse competition on a plane a few years ago. She pointed out the part of the Bible where it says, something like faith isn’t enough (one of these: ) and she said that means you need *both Works AND faith* and I pointed out that it actually says nothing about faith being required, just Works. So maybe there’s hope for all those Heathens she was hoping to convert when she grew up to be a missionary even if they don’t convert and are just good people. (She also didn’t think babies go to Hell if unBaptized, even though her church says they do. And she thought that feeding and freeing from disease is more important than proselytizing. So maybe someday she’ll end up converting to a more mainstream faith.)

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        When you come right down to it, I think most religious groups (probably including a number of non-Christian ones) think both faith and works matter, though they may differ on why they matter, and/or where they come from. As someone who to some extent believes in predestination — or, more precisely, in the key underlying concept, the ultimate and absolute power of God — I’m always taken aback by the idea that faith is, to some extent, something you do, e.g. in “accepting Jesus into your heart,” rather than something God does to you. I can also understand that someone who believes that anyone who hasn’t gone through a certain ritual and/or made a particular kind of faith statement is damned for all eternity would see getting as many people as possible through the ritual/statement as the highest priority. At least from my decidedly-idiosyncratic Calvinist perspective, that’s one of the advantages of leaving the saving up to God; it frees His body in the world — those of us who make up the church, and, at least from my perspective, anyone who feels called to make the world a better place, regardless of the source to which they ascribe that call — to focus on the feeding, freeing from disease, working for justice, etc., etc. type activities. It’s also, of course, easier to work effectively alongside people of varying faiths if you aren’t trying to convert them, and/or the people you’re helping.

    • kt Says:

      I have not been at this game as long as you have, Contingent Cassandra, but I have spent about three years on the teaching postdoc path and one on the research postdoc-like path. I think I’m reasonably good at teaching, and people compliment me on my teaching, and I think it is more socially useful than my research in pure math, probably. I was also raised in a Calvinist tradition (or at least radical Protestant) and lean Quaker now.

      But I’m reaching a very weird point and I don’t know what to do with it. I have stopped caring that teaching is more socially useful/perhaps more “godly” (not that you said that or used that word). I do feel it’s more important than what I’ll end up doing for a while, but… I’m experimenting with some jobs that are far more valued by “the world,” like web development, that I don’t see any spiritual justification for (for myself!). Not only is the possibility of being paid more $$ compelling, but there is a spiritual lightness in doing some work that’s useful for someone and yet not really freighted with moral concern! Whenever I’m teaching I’m so aware of how I am trying to interact with people and in what spirit we’re all there. Implementing these questionnaires in PHP or whatever has no such moral weight. And I kind of like it.

      But what do I say/feel when in conversation with someone devoting her life to reforming climate policy? or tending the future of the nation (i.e., teaching)?

      And you’re totally right that professors are not sure who/what they are these days. I look at my friends with the dream t-t job and I am so afraid I’d hate it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        good causes can almost always use $$ (and votes, and calls to legislative offices)

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        And there really is a lot to be said for doing what one is good at — and for the idea that one knows what one is good at partly from the intrinsic satisfaction doing the job brings.

        Things get trickier, of course, when one has to take account of other factors not inherently related to the job — e.g. the monetary value which the larger society places on a particular kind of work, and the conditions in which it takes place. Unfortunately, in our own social contact, there are a number of jobs that are, in fact, quite important (and to which people give lip service as important), but that don’t pay very well, and, increasingly, in part because of pressure to do them as “efficiently” as possible, don’t offer much in the way of autonomy and room for creativity. Teaching definitely falls in that category; so do many kinds of medical work, and work involving the care of the young, the elderly, or the otherwise vulnerable. When you put together stagnant (or, in some cases, falling in real terms) wages, increasing costs of preparation/training, and increased supervision (by people who are often paid a great deal to be “experts” about activities in which they’ve rarely if ever engaged themselves), you’ve got a recipe for work that might well be deeply satisfying for many of the people who perform it becoming considerably less so, for reasons that have very little to do with intrinsic talents or intended vocations. (And finally, one has to note that there is a gender component: while the “disruptors” who try to rearrange some industries are increasingly female as well as male, the people being disrupted/alienated from their labor are often majority-female).

        In relation to higher ed teaching in particular, I also find myself running into another set of assumptions (which I’m pretty sure also involve a strong gender component): there seems to be a single widely-accepted model of the good, “dedicated”/inspirational/whatever teacher, which revolves very heavily around the relationships the teacher forms with her/his students. Good teachers, in this model, “connect” with their students, care deeply about them as individuals, and draw energy and inspiration from interactions with them. There’s nothing wrong with this model of teaching, but I’d argue that it assumes a teacher who tends pretty strongly to the extrovert end of the extrovert/introvert scale, or at least hangs out somewhere toward the middle. Of course, many scholars, including me, are introverts. I still think I’m a pretty good teacher, but I tend to connect with, and draw energy from interacting with, ideas more than people. I also, in my teaching-intensive position, have a *lot* of students. I work hard to create the conditions in which they can learn — scaffold whole syllabi and individual assignments carefully, comment on work-in-progress regularly, answer in-person and emailed questions promptly and thoroughly — but I don’t even try to connect with every student as a person; to me,that sounds both exhausting and unnecessary. My guess is that my approach works better for some students than the more extroverted approach (some students may thrive on being part of 5 or 6 classroom “communities” as well as all the other social, work, and family communities to which they belong; others may, like me, find the very idea exhausting, and wish they could just focus on the work); it may also work worse for some students. Not every student is going to “click” with every teacher, and vice versa, and it’s entirely possible for learning to take place anyway (in fact, it’s useful for students to learn to deal with teachers who aren’t a close personal fit, since they’ll undoubtedly deal with bosses and others who meet the same description in life beyond college). But I remain aware that I’m unlikely ever to be seen as a truly good teacher as long as the extroverted model prevails (though I might successfully publish about teaching, or even — gulp — become one of those experts in what other people should be doing, a prospect about which I am deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, after 20+ years in the classroom, I do have some ideas, and the experience to back them up, and I can think of ways to approach the job that would focus on drawing out the observations and experience of other teachers. On the other hand, I’m not sure that’s an approach that would be easy to sell to those willing to pay for such advice/supervision/consultation, nor am I sure I could learn to speak enough of their language with a straight face to “pass”).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Note that the Social Planner would say that in order to Maximize Total Social Welfare these Public Goods and these jobs that provide Positive Spillovers to Society should be paid for by the government from taxes, not just out of the paychecks of the self-less. Relying on public spiritedness results in under-provision (not to mention inequality).

  8. Jane B Says:

    I agree with much of this post, but can’t see where it is controversial? Is that perhaps because being defined-by-your-job-title is maybe more of a ‘thing’ in the US/US academe, I wonder?

    I certainly believe that I would not give up being a scientist because that wasn’t my job title – it’s just as much expressed in the way I choose a cat food or whether to take an umbrella as in the work I am paid to do – but I also think I was drawn to studying science partly because it formalised and extended the way I already thought about and interacted with the world, so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation.

    Anec-data: I was raised Non-Conformist Protestant and still consider that to be my affiliation if asked although I’m not currently a member of a church (long story – and cause of many arguments similar to this topic with Christian friends about whether you can be a Christian without a Church) – Works Matter.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think any mainstream or many fundamentalist Christian sects would argue that works don’t matter, the question is whether or not faith is necessary or if works are enough. (As in, Can Heathens be saved if they’ve never heard the Word?)

  9. xykademiqz Says:

    I was raised atheist in Europe and all these discussions about the necessity (or not) of faith are fascinating for me to observe. FWIW, I was raised, and raise my kids as well, that you need to be a good person and kind to others, and that all the shit you do or don’t do is on you.

    OTOH, I am very much defined by what I do. My geekiness permeates every fiber of my being.

    As for SAHMs etc… Let’s just paraphrase Moxie (of Ask Moxie): While being a lot of work, being a mom is not a job, it’s a relationship. Jobs are jobs.

  10. NZ Muse Says:

    This was probably the hardest aspect of my decision to leave my previous job.

    Enjoying the comments.

  11. Linda Says:

    I’ve basically fallen into just about every career/job/profession I’ve ever had. Perhaps that’s why I don’t feel compelled to define myself by my work.

    Over the past 5 or 6 years I’ve been less than excited about my work but very attached to the lifestyle the paycheck brings me. I think about going back to working at non-profits and earning a much smaller salary, and then my bag-lady syndrome kicks in and I stop thinking that way.

    I think I prefer to talk to people about my hobbies rather than my job because I feel so much more in control of my life outside work, though. At work, I vacillate between feeling unappreciated and passed-over, and one of the few competent (and therefore over-worked) people on my team.

    I’ve been thinking about work a lot in the past few months and will likely start putting my thoughts together in a blog post or two at some point, at least.

  12. plantingourpennies Says:

    Perhaps I’m an overly literal person, but I always felt like there are many things I DO, but the only thing I AM is ME. The list of things that I DO has changed over the years, and I fully expect it to continue to do so over the course of my life, but who I AM – a unique collection of cells named at birth – has not.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Succinctly put!

      (Though don’t cells all get replaced and stuff?)

      • plantingourpennies Says:

        Yeah, but isn’t cell division/replication basically cloned copies? (Says the girl who hasn’t thought about cell division since freshman bio in 1997…) I’m willing to call something that maintains my same DNA over the course of my life “Me”.
        Though if human cloning ever came to pass, I guess that would me there would be two of “Me” simultaneously… Which is interesting to contemplate, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.

  13. Debbie M Says:

    Who I am depends on context–different people are interested in different parts of me. I most identify with the geek and hippie subcultures. I’m agnostic/rational humanist. I’m a big-picture person rather than detail-oriented, but with a lot of detail skills because of my background as a bureaucrat. My favorite subjects to learn are social sciences; my favorite subject to grade is math. I can enjoy following ballroom dancing from intermediate down to rankest of beginners. The deck is stacked highly in my favor as a white American from a loving family, etc.

    I think we are what we do, but you can’t tell from the name of what we do what that means. I’m a bureaucrat, but I’m the kind who focuses on goals rather than rules. The kind who prefers communication over kingdom-owning. I like the libraries, the pension, the free bus rides, the job security, the low stress, communicating via e-mail, the useful meetings; I don’t like over air-conditioning, clueless bigwig blathering about how important staff are, waiting for the bus and playing bus sardines, or enforcing rules when they are roadblocks rather than guides. I don’t mind clearing the copier, but I hate dealing with the computer.

    And of course I do things besides my current job. My other jobs are part of me as well as my family, friends, colleges, hobbies, failures, residences, travels, books, music, etc., etc.

    And there are things about me that are semi-fixed: I like to plan, I value honesty (over tact–though I think you can do both), I think people should be nice, my super power is rationalization, I’m easily frustrated and throw fits, I have buck teeth.

    I think one reason people ask what you do, besides it’s an easy way to learn more about strangers, is that sometimes your job implies a lot about what kind of person you are since certain kinds of people gravitate toward certain kinds of jobs. If you don’t feel your job has connotations that mean anything about you, then it’s harder to like that question. I hang with programmers and engineers because I love their brains, but I have no interest in their jobs, and letting on that I’m a bureaucrat doesn’t really enhance the communication! “I work for [name of university]” just puts off the inevitable. Oh, well.

    Right now, one thing you might be is a recovering academic. (Because you have been damaged.) You’re probably also between gigs. Looking for a new direction. Ideally, decide what you want to talk about, and then think of an answer that leads in that direction. Like politicians, only for good.

  14. Chelsea Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because we are moving back to my hometown this summer (for my husband to take a TT job at a liberal arts college there), and part of me dreads going because at this point in my life I feel like such a failure. At least when you’re a failure from 1500 miles away, no one really notices. I was a “smart” kind in school. A “gifted” kid. I graduated near the top of my (non-elite but not bad either) high school class. But then in college I floundered. I made excellent grades but didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I only have an MS (in statistics) and I don’t make $$$. I didn’t have my first child until I was 30. I have a pretty good job (that I only work at 30 hours a week) that I’m thankful I’ll be able to keep while I finish my second pregnancy, but it’s not super awesome. My kid is wonderful and sweet but has hit every milestone at the last possible second so I’m guessing he’s probably not going to be academically gifted/talented. From reading the comments I’ve learned that because I go to and *gasp* volunteer at church I’m a horrible hypocrite. And the thing is… I just don’t feel like I have the motivation to change. What am I going to do? Go to med-school/get a PhD at 32 with 2 little kids at home? Is that really what I want? Honestly, no. I know this is one big whine, and I guess because your readership is all MDs/PhDs and the like who make $$$ none of you have experienced the pain/stress of realizing you haven’t lived up to your potential. It’s tough. Does that make what I’ve done a failure or who I am a failure?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      There are lots of theories of volunteering. Just because you get a “warm glow” from helping others doesn’t make you a hypocrite.

      And you can’t make statements like, “I guess because your readership is all MDs/PhDs and the like who make $$$ none of you have experienced the pain/stress of realizing you haven’t lived up to your potential” when you have a masters in statistics. You’re one of the elite too. Obviously you’re looking at the wrong reference group.

      And there will be people looking at you the same way– omg, MA in MATH and a useful kind of math and she gets to work part time in a job she likes so she can spend more time with her children and on hobbies. A lot of people can’t even imagine having such a great life. But if you want to be in a negative funk and hate the world, you can just focus on people you don’t even want to be and try to cut them down.

      It isn’t healthy to only look “up” and feel jealous. We have all done that and it never helps. (In fact, it’s pretty insulting to us and our readership to say we haven’t. And we certainly don’t all make $$, education credentials or not.) It’s not particularly healthy to care what other people think about your choices over your own desires, assuming those desires don’t involve torturing puppies.

      And in this case, it’s probably only you who is feeling like you’re a failure, and only you who is feeling sorry for you. If you have a parent or someone who wishes you had gotten a higher degree, then trying to live their lives through you is their problem, not yours.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        Second the observation that, when we’re feeling vulnerable, we sometimes defend ourselves by projecting (and that returning to families/hometowns can make us particularly vulnerable). In fact, I’d argue that at least some of high-conflict nature of public discourse these days comes from the fact that a lot of people are feeling vulnerable, and/or like they haven’t lived up to their early promise, thanks mostly to the recession and the rapidly-changing, unsettled, nature of many professions these days (including those for which you need a Ph.D., M.D., or J.D. There are a lot of underemployed people with one or even two or three of those degrees out here). So, the more you can go into the situation assuming that people are probably too preoccupied with their own choices and/or success to be thinking about/commenting on yours (and that, when they *do* comment on what they perceive as your choices and/or success, they’re at least partly commenting on their own), the better the transition will probably go. That said, as you’re probably aware, academic communities are feeling particularly beleaguered/vulnerable right now, which can result in irrational blaming and/or clinging to an unsubstantiated view of the academy and/or the country as a whole as a meritocracy (“we have tenure-track jobs because we’re the most deserving of them!” “our graduates would get jobs if they only took this course/took that course/had this skill/tried hard enough!”), so you might want to go into getting-to-know-you interactions with your husband’s colleagues with that in mind. Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind what you note: that you’re at a particular (and particularly exhausting) point in your life, and have made choices specific to that situation. Later on, you’ll have the chance to make others (and yes, you could still go back and get another degree, if that’s what you decide would be best for you, maybe not at 32 with two little kids, but perhaps at 40 with two kids well-launched into elementary school and — we can only hope — opportunities opening up in an improved economy). In short, a significant portion of the population is feeling beleaguered and like failures right now. If we can manage to support each other rather than turning on each other, we just might make things a bit better (and will certainly be happier along the way, whether or not external factors improve).

    • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

      Oops. My bad. I was actually thinking the dana carvey church lady character from SNL but younger people may not even remember that skit…not real church volunteers. I have been irrecoverably scarred by my catholic upbringing and the unethical people in the church community I was from. I do know great churches do exist that form the sense of community and hope people need to keep going in life. I’ve witnessed how powerful it can be. Sorry.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I got the SNL reference… does that mean we’re getting old?

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        I’m pretty old (over fifty), but I got the reference. In fact, I remember one class earlyish in my teaching career (adjuncting, mid-’90s, state liberal arts college, though I can’t remember which of two if was) comparing me to the church lady. I think I was using sarcasm (“well, isn’t that special!”) as a teaching tool a little bit more than ideal.

        I can only speak for myself and my own church community, but, from what I’ve seen, people belong to churches, and participate in church activities, for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from selfless to selfish, and more often than not a confused mix of the two. That doesn’t make us hypocrites; it just makes us human (or, to put it another way, and to quote someone back in church history, though the jury seems to be out on exactly who: churches are not museums for saints, but hospitals for sinners. And from my own experience: there are churches that embrace this model, and churches that don’t. If you find yourself in one of the latter, leave and seek out one of the former, which will be a far more welcoming and effective place, on a whole lot of levels.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The nice thing about the Anglican-Catholic tradition is that it doesn’t actually matter *why* you do good works. Doing them selflessly provides the same results as doing them because you don’t want to burn in the fires of Hell. I find that pretty comforting. God doesn’t care what’s in your heart, so long as you behave yourself. (Even Saint Terese, the quiet French one known for being the Ideal of Niceness, journaled about how very difficult it was for her to be nice to her irritating colleague… her colleague of course thought that Terese liked her tremendously.)

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        Or, as I’ve often heard pastors explain, the “love” in “love your neighbor” is a verb/action, not an emotion. It’s entirely possible to love your neighbor (fellow-parishioner, friend, colleague, family member) without particularly liking hir, at least at the moment. Definite bonus points (on what scale/reward system, I’m not sure) if (s)he doesn’t recognize the difference.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Obviously burning years off purgatory! (Still a little Catholic left in here…)

    • kt Says:

      This is an interesting comment, because recently I was on a walk and started listing off friends from Caltech and what they’re doing now. (They were all the smart ones too.) Ok… stay-at-home mom (the kind with gardens and canning expertise), software engineer (started with games), project or product manager (different but can’t remember), health care something administrativey (she has the best haircut of all & thus looks like a real adult!), rocket scientist, doctor, stay-at-home-mom-for-now (due soon!), computer science prof…. You don’t know these people, but I do, and I remember meeting them & wondering who would win a Nobel for particle physics. But instead it’s work and gardening and kids and roof repairs. Like just about anyone. Fewer instances of homelessness, less criminal justice system involvement than some hometown circles of friends. But other than the rocket scientist no one has a job title that would make you say, Wow! You must be super-brilliant! and the PhDs in particular make far less $$ than one would guess.

      I always had some idea from being a gifted kid that I’d be special or something like that. It’s true, in a way, but it’s mostly a lie. It’s a lie that academia really preys on, as academia fosters the idea that being a professor is really SPECIAL in a way that being a code monkey is not. I still mostly believe that in fact :) but I am realizing on a practical level that it doesn’t matter. I could stick to some outmoded mental idea of “success” or “specialness” and continue to earn $30,000/yr working many hours and doing a lot of grading in a building with poor climate control. Or I could quit believing in that artificial construct of “special” and do something else that suits my life better right now.

      One of my vices is the feel-good messaging of Marie Forleo and today’s video is actually apropos — big dreams aren’t the only dreams worth having.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We are special and awesome. But that has nothing to do with our advanced degrees or our jobs.

        Remember folks, academia is just a job with advantages and disadvantages just like any other job. And the PhD is just a credential that gives some training and access to a subset of jobs, just like any other credential.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Another related religious thought (this from the Protestant work ethic via my mom… although she was raised Catholic we have a lot of Protestant stock in our family tree as well): What’s important is that you do good work, whatever it is that you do.

    • Rented life Says:

      I’m 33. Just had my first kid. “Only” have an MA, in a not very respected social science. I’ve made loads of bad choices and only now am starting to make $$$. I learned recently that my younger brother with his BS has consistently made more money than me. (And he has no debt and enough in his savings to pay off my debt.) Trust me, I know what it feels like to feel like you didn’t live up to your potential. Then I realize I need to redefine what living up to my potential means.

    • chacha1 Says:

      I have “only” an M.A. and it’s in history for f***’s sake. I work in an environment where I am surrounded by Ph.D.s holding J.D.s who are young enough to be my children. Am I an underachiever? Not by MY measure.

  15. Astra Says:

    I too was raised Catholic. When I was 16 we moved to Midland, TX where most of my new friends were Southern Baptist. They would say things like “Well, I believe that Catholics can be Christians [umm, thanks?], but you do believe that you are saved by faith alone, right?” I had no idea what they were talking about. Being saved hadn’t really come up in my Catholic school education.

  16. chacha1 Says:

    In short, I define myself and others by what we do.

    From a very early age it has been clear to me that what people say they believe, and how they behave, are – frequently – mutually exclusive. Therefore I tend not to believe people who say they believe this that or the other; and I tend to try quite hard to make my actions consistent with the things I think, in the back of my mind, I believe in.

    Generally, self-applied labels are based on belief. Lots of people say, e.g., they are writers or artists; but they don’t actually write or create anything. My own beliefs are the product of 48 years of reading, studying, considering, changing my mind, and ceasing to uncritically swallow the infinity of dogma. I *am* defined by my beliefs, but only to the extent that I put them into practice.

  17. Thisbe Says:

    Well, we definitely are what we do – but we are not necessarily what we get paid to do. It’s just that how we spend our time and mental energy ends up constructing our selves. I have noticed, in myself and in others, that changing a career or retiring can have a major effect on what kind of person one is. But so can adding a major hobby or gaining or losing a partner or having children or moving to a different town. Change the input and/or processing, change the output.

  18. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    I probably over-identify with what I do. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure plenty of people hear “writer” and think “unemployed” so I can’t be too dependent on what other people think of my work for my self-esteem, or I’d need to spend a lot of time hiding under the covers.

  19. Link love (Powered by cannoli and yum cha) | NZ Muse Says:

    […] Nicole and Maggie ask: Does what you do define who you are? […]

  20. Matt Healy Says:

    Science is not *all* that my wife and I do, but for better or worse all those years of scientific training do have a big effect on how we see the world. Downside is we sometimes over-analyze stuff.

  21. Ask the grumpies: Do I stay or do I go now, and if I go… then what? | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] of academia where, at least when you’re new, leaving the academic track seems like failure (it isn’t!), and you get people sticking around probably longer than they […]

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