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NextGen Magazine


Does What You Do Really Define You?

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Apr 11, 2023

“What do you do?” is often an icebreaker, or one of the first questions a person is asked when meeting someone. But getting away from defining oneself by one’s job title can be freeing, The Wall Street Journal reported.

There are many reasons why people define themselves, or are defined, by their job titles. It gives one a sense of self-worth, it is an easy conversation starter, or it is just that jobs consume so much of a person that there is not much room for anything else.

But, not leading with one’s professional self can yield certain benefits.

Jon Levy hosts a dinner series where guests are not allowed to reveal what they do for 90 minutes. But by the end, the group bonds by sharing the task of preparing dinner. “Everybody can be wonderfully themselves,” he told the Journal.

Ashley J. Hobbs once had a man at a party walk away from her after she told him of her job working in education technology. She vowed never to be like that, but, over the years, she found herself consumed by talking of her work as a podcast producer. She deleted her Twitter account and removed all mentions of her career from her profile bios, except for LinkedIn. It feels freeing not to have to be Ashley the Podcast Producer at every moment, online and in real life, she told the Journal.

Kate Bernyk asked people “what do you do?” upon meeting them, because she wanted them to ask her, as her communications job defined her. She eventually quit, took a lesser paying job with lower status, and used her newfound free time to take up embroidery, travel by herself and write personal essays. When meeting people, she now asks them, “What fills your time?” or “What brings you joy?”

Some people, however, want to talk about their work. “It’s evidence that I made something of myself,” Alicia Smyth, who works in the aerospace industry and was the first in her immediate family to go to college, told the Journal. 

But losing a job can also deal a blow to those who devoted themselves to their work. People laid off by big name companies such as Facebook or Google feel betrayed, Jen Dary, who coaches engineering leaders and product managers, told the Journal. She recommended that people lead with their hobbies and family when making introductions.

Ed Baldwin, who works in human resources, warned people not to “get tied to that stuff,” meaning a job title and an employer, as it can easily disappear—and with it, the prestige of one’s position or the workplace camaraderie.

“That’s the danger in that entanglement,” he said.