Be what you are, not what you do.
The first question a stranger asks us at a party is usually “So, what do you do?” They are specifically asking what you do for a living, or alternatively phrased “What activity to you trade your life energy for that gives you money in return”.
Why is this so?
The question is so universal and automatic I feel we must examine it in more detail.
This is really a question of identity. People ask because their job is a large part of their identity and they naturally assume yours is as well. They are probably right.
One overlooked cause of unhappiness is how we identity ourselves, often by things we do, not things we are. This creates an impossible situation as we cannot be what we do. We are not verbs.
No one actually cares what you “do for a living” though. Why would they? Hell, I don’t even care what I do for a living! They are either filling space with conversation, or more likely, they want to know who you are.
The distinction between “what we do” and “who we are” matters. Who we are is much more important and often less under our control.
We all have preconceived notions of what it is to be a writer, an astronaut or a school teacher. The problem arises when we fail at what we do and are identified with it. We then become that failure. If we are a writer but do not publish something or get the accolades we feel a writer should, then we fail. But if instead we just write, we succeed unless we simply choose to not do it. By changing this perspective we create scenarios where failure is unlikely.
Striving and reaching often creates suffering. This is not to say we shouldn’t try and be better. We should; this is what drives progress in the world, but mindset matters.
I’m not a writer, but I write. I’m not a musician but I play music. I’m not a photographer, but I take pictures. I can fail at being a writer, musician or photographer, but I can’t fail at writing, playing music or taking pictures unless I just don’t act.
This allows us to focus on the more important things, like who we are.
As you may have noticed, much of what I think and write is about increasing happiness or freedom. I think the two are so closely interrelated I rarely talk about one without the other. Self-identifying with what we do limits our freedom. It puts us in a box, even if only subconsciously.
It limits our opinions and behaviors.
That little voice in our head will turn into our mother, wagging finger and all, and whisper concerned disappointment in our ear. “A good (Inset any label: cop/librarian/Christian/lady/writer, etc…) doesn’t behave like that!”
The less identified you are, the less often you will hear that voice. Turning that voice off is priority number one. The voice doesn’t know you after all, only what you are supposed to do to satisfy it’s unreasonable requests.
For instance, the less I identify with being a ‘doctor’ the more I can focus on ‘healing people’. The closer I can live my life as my true essence the more effective and present I become.
Now some may bristle at this reasoning. “I love my job and the identity it gives me. I am happy!” This can be true. People can be happy while attached. If what you are doing in life works for you, who am I to argue? However, the more we rely on the external for our identity, the more we have to lose and suffer when it is taken from us.
The bonus of this mindset of less attachment is that when you fail (and you will fail at everything eventually), it will be much easier to let it go. It is easier when you are not attached to the identity,
I know many runners that become quite depressed after getting injured because they can no longer run. Much of this suffering is from the loss of identity as a runner rather than the loss of the activity itself. If they simply run, it becomes much easier to let go as their identity remains intact.
Remember, it will all be taken from us eventually. Nothing is permanent.
Next time someone asks you what you do, be creative. Tell them who you are. Tell them what excites you. Show them you.
Write but don’t be a writer.
Run but don’t be a runner.
Create art but don’t be an artist.
Don’t be a doctor but heal people.
Don’t be a lawyer but solve people’s problems.
Don’t be a teacher but teach.
Be a father, daughter, husband, and friend.
Don’t strive to become the things you do.
Be what you are instead.