Sunday, January 06, 2008

Try Not to Confuse Your Occupational Title with Who You Are – Your Self Identity

For the past few weeks, in between some much needed R & R, I have been able to work at home on my writing – two new editions of previously published books (albeit I had a few work-related e-mails and phone calls, but by and large it has been relaxing). In addition to a few softball games, good workouts at the gym and motorcycle rides, I had numerous opportunities to meet some interesting people at local beach bars – basically vacationers from northern states wanting to enjoy some sun. I noticed that on almost every occasion, it wasn’t long into our conversation before they wanted to know what I did for a living (and they appeared to think that I wanted to know what they did for a living). In our post-industrial society, there does seem to be a preoccupation with work.

Employment” is a person’s job or work in service of an employer, a “profession” is an occupation requiring specialized knowledge, a “vocation” is an occupation pursued more for altruistic benefit than for income, and a “career” is a person’s occupational history. The usual questions were, “What do you do?” “Who do you work for?” and the cuetsy, “What do you do to put food on the table?”

Being an honest person, I typically said, “I’m a professor at the University of South Florida.” I have to admit, however, that after noticing that their ostensible valuing of me “as a person” seemed to escalate when they knew that I was a professor, I was tempted to say that I was a day-laborer just to see what would happen. I also sensed that some of them were wrapping their sense of self and self-worth into their occupation or occupational title – “Oh, I’m an attorney with a big firm in Atlanta.” and “I’m a pharmacist… a banker…” etc.

A person’s self-concept or self identity is the mental and conceptual understanding and persistent regard that sentient beings hold for their own existence. In other words, it is the sum total of a person’s knowledge and understanding of his or her self. The self-concept is different from self-consciousness, which is an awareness or preoccupation with one’s self. Components of the self-concept include physical, psychological, and social attributes, which can be influenced by the individual’s attitudes, habits, beliefs and ideas. And for me, that was the rub – the implicit assumption was that because a person is a professor, lawyer, banker, etc., he or she therefore is… a good person, an important person, a person of worth, yada, yada, yada.

In Chapter One, Living Life Consciously, of my pop-psych book, Living Life, Anyway, I address this phenomenon – I’ll paste part of it in below as I think you’ll find it interesting:

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In his recently published book, Russell Rules, the legendary basketball player, Bill Russell, who with the Boston Celtics won 11 NBA Championships in 13 years, addressed this phenomenon:

I am frequently asked if I am a basketball player, and I always say no. One time years ago John Havlicek and I were standing in an airport when he asked me why I did that. I told him what I had been telling myself all along: basketball is what I do, it’s not who I am.

Over relying on our occupational title as an indication of who we are, not only misleads others from knowing who we truly are, it misleads us from knowing who we truly are. One of my graduate students shared a humorous story with me regarding this phenomenon. An attractive, female professor went to a cocktail party by herself, and early in the evening a man came up to her and boldly asked, “Excuse me, but is it Miss Jones or Mrs. Jones?” She calmly yet smugly replied, “It’s Doctor Jones, thank-you.”

Our occupational title(s) is only one indication of who we are. As eluded to earlier, I am a number of “whats”-- I am a professor, a psychologist and a writer. I am also a nephew, a husband, a father, a brother, a boat, a golfer, a SCUBA diver, a fisherman, a house fixer, and a yard man. What is important for me to remember, however, is that it is the unique combination of my “whats” that makes up the “who” that I am. So, the next time someone asks what you do, instead of using your occupational or recreational title as a pronoun for yourself (“I am an accountant.” or “I am a golfer.”), use the action verb of your occupational or recreational title to tell them what you do (“I do accounting at ...” or “I play golf at ...”).

(p. 19-20)

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Question: Do you ever find yourself confusing “what you do” with “who you are?”



Anonymous said...

Seems to me that we all tend to search around for "ice-breakers" when we're put into social situations. Stands to reason, "What do you do" would be one of those often used. Humans seem to need to socialize and some kind of common ground makes that easier. Most of us have known someone else who does that very thing(!) or we think we know something about whatever response comes back. I love those shirts which have messages printed on them: "Don't cross me or I'll put you in my novel" or "I'm Bill, that's why". They're conversation starters. Social intercourse is the way of the world.

Dr. Bill Emener said...

Hello Anonymous,
I appreciate your pointing out that in many ways "telling white lies" can be a functional social lubricant and as "ice breakers" enhance conversation. Nonetheless, that's not inconsistent with the main thesis of my Post -- my expressed concern addressed when we allow our occupational title to become too much a part of who we are. As a college coach once said to us in the locker room, "Be careful not to believe all your press clippings."
Again, thanks for the input and sharing your experience.
'til next time,