“So, what do you do?”
It’s the second question we’re all asked at a party or barbecue. After “what’s your name?”, “what do you do” is usually quick to follow.
We’ve been asked this question and we’ve asked it of others. Maybe you’ve thought nothing of it. But I believe the way we ask and answer this questions creates several problems.
First, many of us aren’t just doing one thing anymore. We’re part of the gig economy, where we are “this/that.” We’re hustling on a few different things, creating a livable income through multiple revenue streams.
Second, being labeled by what you do is frustrating. We label people for pragmatic reasons – it’s easier for our brains to understand new information when we can attach it to previously existing categories. So, we have already an idea of what an engineer, nurse, accountant, teacher, or manager looks or acts like and we put the people we meet in those categories.
While labels help us in the moment, they hurt us over time. Because labels lie and labels limit. No single label tells us the truth about a person and no label can last as someone changes and grows over time.
Third (and I think this is the biggest problem), defining who you are by what you do sets you up for future heartache and frustration. As a pastor, I’ve served in churches with attendees from 15 years old to over 100. And one of the hardest things I’ve seen are people who lose what once defined them.
I see this in the successful businessman who retires and wanders aimlessly looking for something to do. He isn’t sure who he is anymore when no one “needs him.”
I see this in men and women of all ages who have been rocked by terrible health news. A diagnosis has robbed them of the ability and skill they had to do their job. Without the ability to do that work anymore, these people aren’t sure who they are anymore.
When we define ourselves by what we do, we’re only a layoff, a phone call from our doctor, or a few years away from losing our sense of self. While we might feel secure in who we are, we’re actually more insecure and unsafe than we realize.
I learned this lesson the hard way.
Several years ago, I was leading a ministry at my church. We were doing a lot of innovative and creative things, especially considering our context. But our team began to realize the ministry was not sustainable. Those who launched the thing made some bad decisions, which put down a path we were unable to fix. And we couldn’t change course. For our own health and in light of outside circumstances beyond our control, we made the tough decision to end this ministry.
I wasn’t prepared for the backlash from some who didn’t agree with the decision and the wounds from those criticisms cut deeply. But as much as that hurt, I was even less prepared for how I struggled in the weeks and months that followed.
I had been the primary communicator at this weekly event for nearly two years. For six years, I’d been speaking there a couple times a month. I defined myself as a preacher who spoke all the time.
But once we made this move, I no longer had a stage on which to stand nor a crowd to address. I felt like part of me was missing and I felt like I had less value. I wondered, “Did I still have something to say?” I thought, “What am I supposed to do now?”
It was during that time that I got a taste of what I’ve watched retiring pastors experience. I have several who attend the church I now lead. They’ve shared with me the difficulty of leaving that weekly preaching habit behind in retirement.
In that challenging season, I learned three powerful lessons.
Who you are is bigger than what you do.
My worth and value wasn’t defined in my weekly talk. And yours isn’t defined by what you produce or create on a weekly basis either. It’s very easy to equate who we are with what we do. But they are not one in the same.
What you do flows out of who you are.
When we’re in a healthy spot, our work is an expression of our identity, not the definition of our identity. And there’s a big difference between those two. When we have a healthy sense of self, we know our worth and value as a person apart from our performance. What we do becomes our gift to the world. When we have an unhealthy sense of self, what we do is our question to the world. We’re asking, “am I enough?”
You were enough before you could do your work and you will be enough when you can no longer do it too.
You were generous, compassionate, empathetic, fun-loving, and courageous before you took your current job. And guess what? You can be all those things after you’ve left that job too. Our identity is not summed up in our resume or portfolio. Who we are is not a highlight reel of our past projects.
I love being a Millennial leader within a church of five generations (Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X, Boomers and Builders). Sure it’s a challenge to build unity and find commonality. But I get to see life from a vantage point beyond my stage in life. And that perspective empowers me to live differently.
If you struggle with equating who you are with what you do, then here’s one thing I’ve done which has made a big difference for me.
I’ve started developing a list of daily affirmations. The word affirmation comes from the Latin word, affirmare, which means “to make steady, strengthen.” Affirmations are being widely used to rewire our brains towards positivity and breaking patterns of negativity.
One of my daily affirmations is “I am Scott, God’s beloved son. God loves me for who I am, not what I do. In me, God is well pleased.”
RELATED: The Cure for an Identity Crisis
How do you get started with affirmations?
- Write down two or three phrases or short sentences which define who you are (apart from what you do).
- Put them somewhere you can review them each morning.
- Recite them out loud until you’ve committed them to memory.
I believe your value is much bigger than what you do. What you do matters and this is one reason why I’m so glad QARA exists, to help us explore and lean into our callings.
I love what Paul Sohn, QARA founder, recently posted on his Facebook page. In reflecting on his recent book launch, he wrote, “If I learned anything about writing my book, I learned to be myself. I learned to be comfortable in my own skin – to truly embrace who I am created to be. No more comparing, no more hiding, no more proving. I’m committed to show up fully as Paul Sohn, as a beloved child of the Most High King.”
I pray that you learn to live from your truest self, something that cannot be contained or confined to what you do in one job in any season of your life.