How We Define Ourselves

October 4, 2016, By Glenn Zweig

Many moons ago I spent the summer working in Porto, Portugal.  At the time, the country was far less developed than the rest of Western Europe.  Portugal was lightyears behind the economies and hustle and bustle of its neighbors.  But the people were friendly, the weather was nice and the pace was slow and leisurely.  One day while I was eating lunch by myself at a popular restaurant, the waiter asked if I would mind if another guest joined me since there were no empty tables.  I assumed that was the local custom and acquiesced.  After the initial awkwardness of breaking bread with a complete stranger subsided, we introduced ourselves and shook hands.  I then followed with the obvious next question when getting to know someone:  “So what do you do?”

His eyes lit up and a huge smile crept across his face as he proceeded to tell me.  “Oh lots of things.  I love to hike and camp in the mountains.  I enjoy hanging out at the beach and catching some sun.  I like drinking beer with good friends and dancing at the clubs late into the evening.  And I’m a huge soccer and Formula 1 racing fan.”

“No,” I replied.  “I mean what do you do?”

He had a confused look on his face.  “I don’t understand. I just told you what I do.”

“What do you do for a living?  To make money.  What is your job?” I clarified.

That bewildered stare didn’t fade one bit as he responded, “Oh.  Ummm…  Let’s see… I work in a bank doing some analysis.  Why do you ask?”

That’s when I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

What do you do?  It’s a pretty simple question.  At least on the surface.  I’m sure we’ve all been asked it thousands of times over the span of our lives.  And raise your hand if the first thing out of your mouth is “I’m a [fill in blank with your profession].”  It’s not something we contemplate even for a second.  The response is instinctual.  And let’s be honest, it’s not just the opening response to the myriad of things you do in your life. It’s the entire response.

If you take a minute to let that sink in, it’s pretty sad, isn’t it?  Don’t get me wrong.  Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours working in some sort of capacity so you might as well enjoy it.  I’m certainly not suggesting you shouldn’t be happy or proud of what you do for a living.  But when given an open ended question like that, the first thing and often only thing that comes to mind is our line of work.  That’s how strongly we allow our work to define us.  That’s the norm in a society like ours.

Given the value we place on it, think of how uncomfortable a stay-at-home mom or dad might feel when being asked that question.  That job is every bit as important and probably a lot more challenging than the work most people do to earn a paycheck.  But yet I’ve often seen those parenting heroes respond to the question in an almost apologetic fashion.  As if raising children is deemed less worthy.  Or how about someone who’s unemployed?  Or retired?  Or handicapped and unable to work?  Or perhaps someone employed but just unhappy with their job?

When society dictates that our work is “what we do”, it doesn’t give us much room to define ourselves by whatever activities, hobbies, interests, beliefs, values and passions give us meaning and purpose. 

O.K., here it comes.  Here comes one of the most cliché questions in the world.  But I’m going to ask it anyway.  What do you want written on your tombstone?  While I’ve seen and heard this hundreds of times, I’ve honestly never pondered the question.  That is, until the day I was sitting in my doctor’s office a couple years ago when I heard the three words I’ve prayed I would never hear: “You have CANCER.”  It was one of the most out-of-body experiences I’ve ever had. Fortunately, it was one of the more treatable cancers and it was caught pretty early.  But when you first hear those devastating words, your entire life flashes right in front of your eyes.  Confronting your own mortality has a way of forcing you to think about those philosophical tombstone-esque questions.

I’d be lying if I said that I’ve figured out the answer.  That I’ve done some serious soul searching and have “solved” the tombstone question.  I honestly don’t know the answer.  I don’t know what I’d want written in a few short words to summarize my life. And even if I thought I knew the answer, I’m pretty confident that answer would change a year from now, ten years from now or God willing, forty years from now.  But as much as I enjoy my work and have enormous gratitude for all of the challenges, adventures and character building I’ve experienced over the course of my career, I don’t think any of it would make the short list for the tombstone carving.  While it’s often how I define myself externally following our societal conventions, it’s not how I define myself internally.  I am not my work and my work is not me.  That’s not how I want my wife or my kids or my friends to remember me.

I would like to think that the memory of my personality, my character, my integrity and my values will endure a lot longer than the line of work I was in. 

When we’re young and impressionable, we flip on the TV or fire up Linkedin, Facebook or Youtube and fame and fortune seem to be the dominant themes.  It’s who we read, who we follow, who we admire and who we try to emulate.  It’s hard not to be influenced by it.  It’s everywhere.  I’m not in any way knocking success.  I sometimes wish I had more of it.  But more often than not, that seems to be the primary yardstick by which we measure ourselves.

I remember during that first week of my summer in Portugal, in my youthful unbridled arrogance, how proud I felt being an American.  We were a much more advanced society.  Our economy was more robust.  Our work ethic was much stronger.  Our will to compete and win, both at the individual and national level, was far superior.  The ideal of the American Dream was the be-all and end-all and permanently embedded in our psyche.

These Portuguese just don’t get it, I smugly concluded.  They don’t know what they’re missing. Oh how they wish they could be more like us.  But then as the days melted into weeks and the weeks into months, I began to notice something.  Something subtle yet something profound.  The people seemed happy.  I don’t just mean content.  I mean genuinely happy.  And not just some of the people.  I’m talking practically everyone.  It seemed that everywhere you turned people were smiling, laughing, hugging, connecting.

It didn’t appear to be about money or status or power.  People were just happy living their life and doing their thing. 

I never once heard anyone complain about their plight in life.   It didn’t feel like a divided society of the haves and the have nots.  Sure, they could work harder to increase their incomes but they didn’t care.  It’s not that they were blind to the fact that the standards of living were higher in other countries.  They just didn’t care.  The size of their homes, the brand of their cars, the prestige of their jobs, the size of their bank accounts…  None of it really mattered at the end of the day.  Nobody seemed to talk about it.  Work rarely if ever came up in conversations.

And that’s when it dawned on me.  That maybe, just maybe, it’s the Portuguese who have it figured out and it’s we who have it backwards.  Here we are with everything yet we’re so miserable.  And there they are with very little yet they’re so happy.   It’s like we’re the rats trapped in cages spinning furiously on the wheel and getting nowhere while they’re just watching us from the outside and laughing.  And we think that we’re the ones better off?

So with all that said, let me ask you once again.  But this time don’t respond immediately.  Take your time and think about it.  Reflect.  Search inward.

So what do you do?

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