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?