Defining yourself by your career when you don't really have one
Think about the last time you met someone. At some point in the conversation, you both probably talked about what you do for a living. As humans, we like to categorize things, and one easy way to categorize people is to look at what they do for a living. It’s simple. By knowing someone’s profession, we automatically know a lot about the person (or at least we think we do). We can guess what they spend most of their time doing and probably make assumptions about some of their key personality traits.
What do you do when you don’t have an answer to that question? These days, it seems like we’re all getting a much later start in life than the generations before us. What if you don’t have that job title that sums up who you are and what you do? What if you haven’t found your “real” career yet? What if you are just working whatever job you have to work to make ends meet while you try to figure it out? So many people define themselves by their careers. What about the people who don’t really have one?
When I finished grad school last summer, I began looking for jobs. Not just any job, but the job. Something that would be the beginning of a wonderful, successful career. Needless to say, I still haven’t found it, or I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. Instead, I’ve spent the past few months wandering around, doing freelance work, and having multiple existential crises.
Not having a job title makes it really hard to answer that question about what I do for a living—or more to the point, what I do. Simple things like introducing myself, or even writing my little bio at the bottom of this page, have become much more philosophical tasks than they should be, making me question who I am and what I’m doing here.
Up until now, I’ve spent most of my life being a student. When I stopped being a student, I thought I’d probably move into a career and get a new title and a new identity. When a few weeks went by and I still hadn’t found that new thing, I started to realize how strange it was to not have some sort of title. Now a few months have gone by and I still don’t have one.
I feel strange and anonymous. I don’t have a “real” job and I can’t really define myself by the things I do, or at least not in a few short words. I write things occasionally, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a writer. I like to cook, but I’m most definitely not a chef. I spend most of each day with my puppy, but sadly, “stay-at-home dog mom” is not a real job title.
When prepping for job interviews, I dread the “tell me about yourself” question the most, although in theory it should be the easiest question to answer. I know who I am as an individual, all the things that make me myself, but I haven’t found a quick, easy way to wrap that all up in a neat little package. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not something else – not quite yet, at least.
Why do we depend so heavily on a job title to define ourselves? A Google search of “defining yourself by your career” turns up a number of results with a similar message: you are not your career, your career doesn’t define you, you are so much more than your job, etc. Everybody knows that who we are as individuals is much deeper and more complex than what we do in our jobs. Even so, it’s still often the first thing we mention when talking about ourselves: “I’m a ______ who does _____.” or “I work in _____ and like to _____.” Not being able to fill in those blanks is a pretty weird feeling. When someone asks you to talk about yourself, how else can you answer?
My solution of late: Using action words. Instead of focusing on a job title, I’ve been using verbs that describe the things I do, whether they are work-related or not. Talking about my talents and the things that make me unique, really help me get a better handle on the looming question.
Maybe you work as an administrative assistant, but you are also an avid runner or you practice yoga. Maybe you are a nanny, but you also speak French and teach it to the children you babysit. Maybe you are a barista by day and a cupcake enthusiast and blogger by night. Or maybe you work in retail, but you also run an Etsy shop selling mugs with cats on them. Whatever your thing is, own it and be proud of it!
Even to a potential employer, that quirky thing about you might showcase some hidden potential, and if nothing else, it will get their attention. Of course, in a professional setting like a job interview, you don’t want to speak too personally, but the point is, there is a whole lot more to you than the thing you do to make money. Try to find out what that is, and embrace it in some way. Let’s try to focus less on what we are, and more on who we are.
As for me, I may not have an easy, go-to way to describe who I am and what I do right now. That’s alright, though, because I’m too many things to squeeze into just a short sentence anyway. I’m a stay-at-home dog mom, full-time job seeker, and occasional freelance writer who likes to cook and write on her blog. That might not sound all that great in a job interview, but it sounds pretty cool to me.