Reality Check: What do you do?

“What do you do?” It’s a simple conversation starter. When you’re introduced, it’s natural to ask about occupations.

However, if you’re unemployed and feeling uncertain about your place in the working world, you might perceive, “What do you do?” as more of an attack than an innocent inquiry. Or perhaps you’ve never worked outside of the home, and “what you do” is a sensitive issue for you.

Each of us has a need for power and achievement. One way (certainly not the only way) that people satisfy that need is through accomplishments and the identity that comes from work. Thus, some people perceive questions about occupation as questioning their very worth as a human.

If you find that you choose a defensive or angry response to the question, “What do you do?” you could interpret that as an indicator that you are not effectively satisfying your need for power and achievement.

What to do? As usual, a little self-evaluation can go a long way. Try asking yourself these two questions. (No need to share your answers!)

  • Do you perceive that what you do is unimportant or unworthy of recognition?
  • Are you doing anything that is worthy of power and recognition?

Let’s look at the first question. For example, if you perceive your work as, “I’m just a housewife,” or “I’m just a shelf-stocker,” or, “I’m just…” anything, then it sounds like you perceive your work as unimportant.

You have the choice and the opportunity to treat your work—whatever it is—as important. And you have the choice to perceive it as such.

For example, if you’re “just” a housewife. Do you manage a household? A budget? A schedule? Transportation? Is that important, even if only to someone else? Then you may as well perceive it as important.

Now, to the second question: Every one of us spends our days doing something; perhaps paid work, perhaps not. Are you proud of what you do? Is it worthwhile? Does it satisfy your need for achievement?

Perhaps your self-evaluation leads you to realize that you spend much of your precious time doing nothing worthwhile—staring at the TV, gossiping, or doing other non-productive or even self-destructive activities. You could use that realization as a powerful motivator to change.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon, an overseas aid worker, or a CEO to do valuable work. (And if you perceive that you need to be a brain surgeon, then wishing or hoping isn’t as productive as taking the first steps toward that career.)

If what you do doesn’t satisfy your need for accomplishment, then it’s within your power to make a change. You could change your perception to recognize the value of the activities you do, or you can start doing more valuable activities.

This life is a precious gift. It won’t last forever. You, as an individual, have skills and abilities. Regardless of the task, when you do your best work, then you make it important. If you do a shoddy job, then neither you nor anyone else will perceive your work as valuable. Which approach is more satisfying for you?

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