Reflections on Work and Identity
How many times have you been introduced to someone only to be asked “what do you do?”. And how often have you read of someone described as “John Smith, an unemployed construction worker” or “Mary McNabb, a computer programmer”. It seems that what we do for a living is inextricably bound with how we are perceived by others, and even with how we perceive ourselves.
This often leads to a great sense of confusion about who we really are and how we relate to the society in which we live. Ask an unemployed mother, for instance – by the way, there is no such critter as a non-working mother; some mothers just don’t get W2s. Ask her about the times she has met someone at a party or some other gathering and responded to the “what do you do” question by saying she is a “housewife” only to have the other person just look bored and walk away. Somehow too many of us have this stereotype that a housewife is just lazy or can’t get work and is therefore not an interesting person to talk with.
On the other end of the spectrum is the person who is so completely involved with his or her work that they know no other world. Their conversation, their thoughts and indeed their total being are wrapped up in “what they do”.
Certainly we have all met someone like this at some time or other; and if not, please let me introduce myself… I can remember many a party or dinner when the only topic I could even think about was my work.
I have worked in the computer industry for over twenty years. I have known, hired, worked with and for just about every stereotype of the computer hacker or computer nerd that you could imagine. I have worked for large and small companies, good and bad. I have even started my own company.
Over these many years, I have formed countless acquaintances many friendships, and even some strong loyalties.
I have felt the pressure of deadlines and the rush of accomplishment. I have watched companies grow and struggle. I have watched them stagnate, and I have even seen them die. I know only too well the powerful force that a job can exert on a person’s life. Some companies have even gone so far as to state formally that they expect working for the company to be more important than any other part of an employee’s life.
It was only after getting fired awhile ago that I really started to examine my relationship with work. I had planned the project, written the specifications, hired a staff and built the product. I delivered more than the spec called for and I even did it ahead of schedule and under budget. But since I didn’t get along with one key person, I wasn’t wanted.
Just like many housewives, I was subject to the derisive judgement of someone whose opinion really shouldn’t have mattered. But it did. My opinion of myself was drastically affected by the opinion of someone else.
Now I really like what I do. I have considered myself very fortunate in that regard. But somehow liking my work so much had become a part of the problem. Liking, and even living for my work was a convenient excuse for failing to balance my life. I was using my work to give meaning to my life rather than augmenting the meaning that was already there.
As I examined my loves and loyalties, I realized that some of them had been misplaced. Love of people and loyalty to people is quite different from love of a job and loyalty to a company. Neither the company nor the job can return that love and loyalty.
Certainly some companies treat people right while other companies don’t; but this is really a misconception. Companies or other types of organizations don’t love or abuse people: people do. A company that treats its people well does so because the people who run that company are sufficiently enlightened to understand that treating people well is good business. It isn’t the company treating the people well: it is people treating people well.
Being loyal to a company or other inanimate object makes about as much sense as being loyal to a flavor of ice cream. I don’t have to be loyal to my company to like it. I can like chocolate ice cream without having to be loyal to it. And I don’t have to feel disloyal if I want to try some other flavor.
And so it is with my job and the company I work for. I like my job, but I am neither loyal nor disloyal to my company. I give the company good work and it gives me good pay. It is a business relationship which either of us can terminate at any time. I intend to stay and the company will keep me employed as long as it is a win-win for all.
My job is no longer the center of my life. And strangely, because I am slightly detached, I am better at my job. I am more objective and less passionate. I can see problems and their solutions more clearly now; and I have time left over for other portions of my life.
My work is now in better balance with the other aspects of my life. Although I still work hard, I am now very clear about the priorities in my life. I like my work and gain much personal satisfaction from it, but this satisfaction comes in addition to the joy I derive from my friends and family. My loyalties lie with people: with my friends; with my family and with my wife.
But, if you ask my wife, she will tell you that I still spend too damn much time in front of a computer. As usual, she’s right.
28 Feb 88