One of the first questions most often asked when meeting someone new is an attempt to identify the person by his or her job. One of my favorite stories is about Reuel Howe, a professor of theology and author, who was met with this question by his seat mate on an airplane. “So, what do you do?” asked the stranger. Reuel said calmly and quietly, “I am a pilgrim.” The conversation stopped. Fifteen minutes later the stranger turned and said to Reuel, “What was it that you said you did?” Reuel: “I’m a pilgrim.” Stranger: “That’s what I thought you said. What does that mean?”
What followed was a very different conversation and having known Reuel, and later his son Lanny, it was easy for me to imagine going deeper into a conversation between two people. In his book The Miracle of Dialogue Reuel peels back what happens when two people communicate much more about who they are than about what they do. We seem to be conditioned to respond to the question by giving a name to our work, either the job or the profession or in some cases the name of the employer. I’m a teacher or a lawyer or a designer or I work at Google. Although we fill many roles – parent, citizen, homeowner, taxpayer, husband, wife, we tend to describe ourselves by what we do either the majority of the time or what we do to earn a living. And over time, our job becomes a dominant part of our identity. In this blog I do not separate work from job although I believe they are not the same. I have addressed that previously and would be glad to respond to questions regarding the differences between doing a job versus doing your work.
Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, defines working identity as “an amalgam of the kind of work you do, the relationships and organizations that form part of your work life, and the story you tell about why you do what you do and how you arrived at that point,” Ibarra’s book by the title Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career is structured in two parts. The first part. discusses the process of questioning and testing our work identities, and the second part describes the actions that increase the likelihood of making a successful change.
Statistics on careers suggest that the average person (whoever that is) will change careers 5-7 times during their active working life, some even more often. Studies on younger workers found that Millennials will change jobs an average of four times in their first decade out of college, compared to about two job changes by Gen Xers their first ten years out of college.
Here are 7 questions for your consideration:
1 – How much time, energy and conscious intention did you invest to design your current occupation?
2 – What process did you use to determine what would be a great fit between who you are and what you are doing?
3 – How is a vocation different from an occupation?
4 – What work other than what you are doing would you like to be about? Why?
5 – If money were of no concern what would you do and how would you spend your time?\
6.- Do you plan to continue what you are doing currently or would you like to change?
7 –What is your “ultimate” goal and design for your life and work?
So, what do you do when someone asks you this question the next time? You might consider a different response than simply and automatically responding with a job label. One show stopper, besides Reuel Howe’s response, is “Why do you want to know?”