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Job Titles: What You Do vs. Who You Are

I recently read Adam Grant’s book and I wanted to pull these notes into their own post.

Before I get to notes from Adam’s book, I serendipitously came across this quote about the relationship between identity and career from @EmmanuelAcho:

Just remember that your occupation is what you do and not who you are. If you let your occupation become who you are, then when you no longer do what it is that you do you will have no idea who you are.

This rings true of so many labels and titles assigned to us—whether by others or ourselves. In fact, it calls into question what I write about myself, whether on my homepage or a social media bio: do I say “I am a designer” or “I do design”? What about “I am a front-end developer” vs. “I do front-end development”?

I am now beginning to notice the subtle difference between “am” and “do”.

The question of who we are in our career or what we want to be “when we grow” up looms large in our lives, though its usefulness is questionable. Here is Michelle Obama quoted in Adam’s book:

I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end. (230)

It’s better, Adam says, to teach kids that careers are actions to take rather than identities to claim. When asked what you want to do vs. what you want to be, it’s much easier to be open to exploring a variety of possibilities. Here’s Adam:

[Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up] encourage skids to make work the main event of their identities. When you're asked what you want to be, the only socially acceptable response is a job. Adults are waiting for kids to wax poetic about becoming something grand like an astronaut, heroic like a firefighter, or inspired like a filmmaker. There's no room to say you just want job security, let alone that you hope to be a good father or a great mother—or a caring and curious person. Although I study work for a living, I don't think it should define us. (230)

What to do instead? Adam recommends that you “anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency” (12). This allows you room to expand and grow rather than be locked in to a rigid identity imposed from the outside via something like a job title.

When we’re invested in a job title, reconsidering a core belief in light of new evidence (science!) can deeply threaten our identity, making it feel like we’re losing a part of ourselves—threatening our ability to reconsider and rethink.

“What I believe” is a process rather than a finality. — Emma Goldman (245)

Adam’s recommendation is to detach your opinions from your identity:

Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence…fairness…integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protection health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in the light of new evidence.