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.
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.
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
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.
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.