Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

In the modern world, our job titles tend to be the centerpiece of our identities. When you meet someone new at a social gathering, the first piece of information that they will likely disclose to the question ‘what do you do?’ is the details of your chosen profession.

Your answer to this question will dictate how you will be perceived by others.

If you tell your new acquaintance that you have a senior or executive level position at a high performing business, you will be met with praise and admiration. You are someone who went to elite universities, wears trendy suits, sleeps in posh hotels and works late hours – the epitome of a success story. People will flock towards you with great interest and enthusiasm. You are seen to have high status, and in their eyes, your efforts should be celebrated.

On the other hand, if you tell this new acquaintance that you are a blue-collar worker in a low to medium paying career, getting dirty and working with your hands, chances are that you’ll be met with disinterested emotionless faces. People may be much less enthusiastic to learn about the specifics and nuances of your life.

Leonardo Dicaprio from the The Wolf of Wall Street

What I want to explore in this article is to assess why we place so much of our self-worth on a single piece of information – our job titles. Yes, I agree that ‘making it to the top’ of the career ladder is a great achievement. Work can also provide a sense of price and source of meaning.

However, I think that our careers should not subsume one’s whole identity.

What about one’s hobbies, intellectual pursuits or more importantly one’s character. There surely matter – don’t they?

You Are Not Your Job

Objectification is when our humanity and uniqueness is reduced down to a single characteristic or trait. In a hyper-efficient productivity driven society, the complexity of intricacies of our individuality can often be limited to our role in the economic system. This can happen on both sides of the employment relationship. Namely, when someone views an employer or employee as an instrument or tool to achieve their desired economic objectives.

The issue with this type of mindset is that it can lead to stress, burnout and a dissatisfaction in life. We become confined to a singular identity. Friendships or familial relationships are neglected as we become constricted by our work.

We try to distract ourselves from an existential void that cannot be filled by possessions or materialist notions of success.

Status Anxiety

It is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others. The advent of digital technologies have given us many more ways to judge ourselves against our peers. Browsing our smartphones, we may get envious of the seemingly perfect lives that our friends from high school have crafted. Our self-worth and self-esteem take a hit when we come to the belief that they are higher on the imaginary ladder of success than we are.

The philosopher Alain de Botton coined the term Status Anxiety to describe the fear of being labelled as ‘unsuccessful’ by others or looked down upon. He claims that those who don’t attain our societies conception of success are anxious with the fear that they’ll be judged by others with a lack of dignity or respect. They see themselves as failures who’ve lost in the competitive game of the free market.

But why conform to the expectations of others.

Why not craft your own path?

Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Redefining Success

There are at least two problems with modern society’s proclivity towards defining success in merely economic terms.

The first is that it negatively impacts one’s physical and mental health. If one finds meaning and purpose only through work, they are then inclined to work unreasonably long hours and make unrealistic sacrifices for their jobs. In a strange reversal of ideals, working late hours and ‘burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion’ has become to be seen as a badge of honour. Busyness is now a status symbol, something that high achievers and self-help gurus boast about on their social media accounts. While this may seem honourable, we all have productivity thresholds. That is, there will come a point when working more hours will lead to less productivity. You will make more mistakes. Remember we are humans, not machines.

The second issue with the mainstream view of status and accomplishment is that it restricts the freedom of the individual. People should have the autonomy to define what success means for them. Rather than merely accepting the social expectations placed on you by others, we can always make the decision about what goals, values and ambitions we would like to achieve.

Perhaps what is most important to us is our religious or spiritual practice, family life, a passion project or our work dedicated to a social cause that we deeply care about. The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.

Breaking Free

You are not your job. You’re not how much much you have in your bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

 Chuck Palahniuk , Fight Club

External things don’t define a person. Most likely, you won’t be remembered by your relative status compared to others or the contents of your CV. In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.

People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.  

18 thoughts on “Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

  1. Great article. Employee titles are false signals of human value. As soon as you get a bigger title, you immediately forget it and focus on the next one.

    For a while the signature line in my emails was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. beautifully said. Yes, I think there is dignity to every job as it contributes to the well being of society. That said, I’ll be reviewing Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit next, which touches on this point

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Status anxiety!! Yes and yes! Lately, I’ve been sitting with myself, asking, “Who am I?” and then responding out loud. I am not my job — and we shouldn’t want to reduce ourselves to something so simple. I love this post and it found me at the right time. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very insightful perspective Andrew. I suppose it is all about what each wants for themselves. I understand the sense of accomplishment that comes from hard work and achievement. In the big picture, you’re right, it’s relationships that matter most. I love what you said here, “The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.” Love that! Absolutely true.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would love for people to define themselves first by their hobbies and interests, and what they are curious about. That is often what makes each of us so unique, opens doors for further conversation, and offers a much fuller picture of the kind of person you are speaking to. The employment title is similar to the family title. I am extremely proud of my family and my children and what we are doing together, but I don’t define myself as a father, and won’t look at that as the one important thing I did in this world.
    Thanks for continuing this conversation and the encouraging words.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, a complete rethinking of what we value for ourselves, and how we see the other people around us would be wonderful, and would help reshape much of the way we interact with each other!


  5. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing your insights about status anxiety and also for urging us to recognize a deeper dimension of Self, beyond possessions, status, degrees, nationality, etc. I’ll be looking forward to your next post!


  6. Reblogged this on A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life and commented:

    The term ‘quiet quitting’ has been getting a lot of media attention lately. It is a term to describe doing the bare minimum required at one’s job.

    I am reposting this article because I think it speaks to the key issues that I believe are at the source of the recent phenomenon: stress, employee burnout and conflating one’s whole identity, status and meaning in life with their job title.

    I do believe that work can provide you with purpose, but it becomes problematic when it subsumes all other areas of one’s life including one’s relationships, hobbies and passion projects.

    What do you think about this trend of ‘quiet quitting’? Let me know in the comments


  7. I think the manner in which we answer the question “what do you do?” tells a person a lot too. If we answer sheepishly or with shame, we are looked at pitifully. If we answer, “I’m a trash collector! It’s great exercise and I get to meet so many people. I’m amazed at the things people throw away,” then I would admire this person and their excitement for what they do.

    Liked by 1 person

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