You Aren’t What You Do (Even if You Do What You Love)
Why conflating your worth with work is a recipe for disappointment
Editor’s preface: Below is an adapted excerpt from The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work, which goes on sale today. You may recognize the author, Simone Stolzoff, from his monthly Every columns on topics like work-life balance, purpose, and career crossroads.
For Americans, “What do you do?” is often the first question we ask when we meet someone new.
Of course, we do all manner of things. But in the United States—and particularly in tech hubs like New York and the Bay Area—how we make money is shorthand for who we are. Our livelihoods have become our lives.
Over the past few decades, work has eclipsed faith and friends as a source of meaning for Americans. When analysts from the Pew Research Center asked Americans what gives their life meaning, respondents were nearly two times more likely to name their career than to name their spouse. Another study found that 95 percent of American teenagers—teenagers!—ranked having a career or job they enjoyed as “extremely or very important to them as an adult.” A fulfilling career ranked higher than any other priority, including making money and helping people in need.
And yet the fetishization of work is not unique to the United States. In an increasingly globalized world, busyness knows no borders. American work culture and management systems are cultural exports as much as Big Macs and Levi’s jeans. Those of you reading this outside of the U.S. know that many of the trends and examples of Americans’ relationship to work echo the experience of workers in other countries, too—especially among the highest earners.
For white-collar professionals, jobs have become akin to a religious identity: In addition to a paycheck, they provide meaning, community, and a sense of purpose. Journalist Derek Thompson dubbed this new phenomenon “workism.” A workist seeks meaning from their work similar to how a religious person seeks meaning from their faith. Workism is even more pronounced among entrepreneurs, who often entangle their self-worth with their professional accomplishments.
According to Thompson, the phenomenon of workism is relatively new. Over the course of the twentieth century, work evolved from a chore to a status to a means of self-actualization. I’ve thought about this a lot in the course of researching my book. But a look at my own family history tells you almost all you need to know.
My Italian grandmother did not expect work to be a reflection of her identity. After my grandfather passed away, she did what she had to do to take care of their five children. She opened a coffee shop in a small town in the heel of Italy’s boot and worked there for 30 years. Until her death, she had a single bulbous bicep from repeatedly pulling down the manual lever of the espresso machine.
Her identity was straightforward. First, she was a woman of faith. Then a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a fresh-pasta maker. She enjoyed her work at the coffee shop—loved it, even—but it did not define her.
My mother was raised in the same Italian town where all her siblings still live. If she had followed the prescribed path, she would have gone to the local university, bought a house within walking distance of her childhood home, and joined the rest of the family for orecchiette every day around 1. (In her hometown, shops and offices close in the afternoons for riposo, a few hours for workers to tend to nonwork priorities like family, food, and rest.)
My mom, however, got a scholarship to study in Rome, met a cute American guy at a holiday party in Switzerland, and moved to San Francisco. She pursued a graduate degree in psychology out of a desire for economic stability as much as out of personal interest. She also loves her work, but very much treats it as a means to an end. She works so she can buy heirloom tomatoes from the farmers’ market, fly back to Italy every summer, and invest in her son’s education.
My dad is also a psychologist, and probably the closest in my family to a workist. I remember asking him once about the philanthropic cause he cares most about. “I see my work as a type of philanthropy,” he told me of his psychology practice. “My work is my way of giving back.” My dad wants to work for as long as he can still remember his patients’ names. Even during pandemic lockdowns, he returned to the office whenever he could.
And then there’s me. I’ve spent my life looking to self-actualize through my work. I’ve wanted to be a journalist, a designer, a founder, a lawyer, a diplomat, a poet, and a shortstop for the San Francisco Giants. But after spending my career playing Goldilocks with different industries, and the last three years writing a book about America’s fraught relationship with work, I’ve come to a simple conclusion: You aren’t what you do. But understanding that platitude at an intellectual level is different from internalizing its message.
The desire to search for self-actualizing work makes some sense. After all, we work more than we do just about anything else. Especially for entrepreneurs with “skin in the game,” there’s a natural tendency to see your company as a reflection of you. But to conflate your identity with your job is risky, as many have learned in the past few years.
The primary issue is that your job might not always be there. If your job is your identity, and you lose your job, what’s left? As many people in the tech industry have learned in the past few months, tethering your sense of self to a job or a company is a precarious game.
Layoffs aren’t the only concern. When you conflate who you are with what you do, you can miss out on other meaningful aspects of life. Many professionals were forced to confront this during the pandemic, when standard ways of working were upended.
The research shows that when we develop multiple passions, interests, and identities, we don’t just become more well-rounded humans but—ironically—we get better at work too. People with greater self-complexity are more resilient in the face of adversity, and more creative problem solvers.
To tether your self-worth to a job is to put your fate in the hands of an entity that won’t always be able to love you back. But when you see your work as one aspect among many that make up who you are, you’re able to see your job for what it is: a living, not the entirety of your life.
This topic is near to my heart, which is why I decided to write a book about it. It would mean a lot if you considered picking up a copy.
Simone Stolzoff is a San Francisco–based author, journalist, and designer. His book The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work is now available. If you liked this piece, you can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his free newsletter.