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OK fellow Millennials (and really, everyone, because who hasn’t seen this movie?) … do you remember that scene in Aladdin where Genie (RIP our beloved Robin Williams) is describing what it’s like to be a genie?
His whole form expands to fill the room while he bellows in a deep, booming voice: “PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER!” … and then he shrinks into his lamp and concludes in a quiet, high-pitched voice, “itty bitty living space.”
One of my clients and I were reminiscing about this recently because it’s the PERFECT visual for what, quite frankly, is wrong with the way we talk about ourselves (at least in the Western world).
My client, Kayla, has been struggling to figure out how to define herself given that, right now, she doesn’t have a traditional career or paying job (she’s been a stay-at-home mom for a few years).
She was feeling pressured, given that her kids are more self-sufficient now, to pick a career path — she believed that having a “title” again (besides “mom”) would solve her identity crisis and earn her some validation and respect.
Obviously we coached around this and got to the heart of the matter. Here’s what she realized:
“I’ve pushed myself so hard to figure out what I ‘am,’ and that’s absurd because no human’s existence can be shoved down that far. You can’t be condensed that much! I’m an engaging and interesting person regardless of whether I have a job title. And I realize that of all the things I thought I wanted to do, none would have solved that existential problem and made me feel whole.”
I completely agree with her. And to be blunt, I’m REALLY tired of this lame, one-note, arbitrary means of defining who we are as people.
I LOATHE THIS QUESTION WITH THE FIRE OF A THOUSAND SUNS
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m an introvert. I tend to hate small talk and awkward social interactions. I find myself woefully incapable of skimming the surface — I’d rather dive straight into the stuff no one wants to talk about.
Which is why I HATE that the most popular introductory question of all time, at least in America, is: “So, what do you do?”
Listen, I get it. Small talk is awkward for everyone, not just introverts. And we all spend the vast majority of our lives working. It’s understandable that we’d be curious how other people spend their time.
The problem isn’t really the question itself. It’s what the question inevitably represents. Which, to me, is a cultural obsession with equating your very identity as a human being to what you do for a living.
The evidence is everywhere. You can find it in highbrow news sources (“the victim was Jane Doe, 31 years old, an engineer from Maryland” … unless Jane died whilst engineering, how is that relevant?) and frothy reality shows like The Bachelorette (Sasha, 26, Dental Hygienist … as if she has a better chance at love because she cleans teeth for a living?).
The way we introduce ourselves usually isn’t, “I’m Rachel, and I work as a life and career coach.” It’s, “I’m Rachel. I AM a life and career coach.”
I PROMISE I’M NOT SPLITTING HAIRS
The distinction between what and who is really important.
Describing yourself with a verb — I’m a person who does this thing — is way less permanent and weighty. If it’s an action, it’s something you can also stop doing. You can put it down and pick something else up. There’s room for change and growth.
But when you describe yourself with a noun — I AM something — that’s a much more serious and weighty way of identifying yourself. It’s also a LOT harder to change.
When the unspoken expectation is that you’ll find a career that melds into your very identity as a human being — well, that’s a HELL of a lot of pressure.
It’s no wonder that when people feel like they have to BE something, not just DO something, they spiral into an existential panic (like Kayla did).
And to be honest, so much of what’s wrong with our culture has to do with how quick we are to dehumanize other people (“She’s a bitch,” “He’s a pig,” “That kid is a brat,” “Millennials are entitled,” “That entire country is just lazy,” etc.).
It’s more convenient for us to shove ourselves and others into labels and boxes that are devoid of nuance, empathy, or understanding. It takes WAY more time and intellectual curiosity to acknowledge our shared humanity by seeing the people beyond the labels and boxes.
The whole “So, what do you do?” question may not seem as malevolent as some of the more blatant ways that we dehumanize each other, but make no mistake, it has its roots in the same unhealthy crap.
LET’S BURN THIS QUESTION TO THE GROUND
A few weeks ago, my friend Joanna called me and instead of asking me what was up, she just went straight for, “How’s your soul doing?”
It was such a good, deep question that I almost cried.
Thankfully, I’m friends with a lot of coaches (Joanna included). We’re literally trained to ask open-ended, empowering questions. But most people aren’t. And that’s got to change.
I want us to challenge the notion that our JOBS are the most interesting thing about us. I want us to see the humanity in other people, beyond what they do for a living. I want us to release the pressure to equate your career with who you are as a person.
So, in the name of all of that, here are 13 better questions we can ask each other in order to connect as people (instead of walking job titles):
- What’s something unexpectedly good that happened to you today?
- What’s been on your mind lately?
- When’s the last time something moved you?
- What books/art/film are you really into lately?
- How did you meet your significant other?
- Who’s your favorite person to have coffee with?
- What really jazzes you up about the work you do?
- How many twists and turns did your life take before you landed where you are?
- What made you laugh really hard lately?
- How’s your soul doing today? (Couldn’t help but throw that in here.)
- What’s the wisest advice about life that you keep coming back to?
- What’s something small that brings you joy?
- What are you most hopeful/excited about right now?
We’re all grand, phenomenal cosmic beings. We don’t deserve to be shut into itty-bitty living spaces.
So the next time someone asks me what I do, don’t be surprised if I say something like:
“Um … I take a lot of walks. I revel in good stories, which is why I thought Season 2 of The Crown was off the CHAIN and why when I finished Fleabag I was sad for two days. I do yoga semi-regularly, but I have to drag myself there every time and I will never be good at it. I make a vegan mac n’ cheese that I swear is just as good as the real thing, and sometimes the prospect of having that for dinner is what I’m most excited about ALL DAY. I also coach a lot of really cool people and write blogs where I tend to be snarky but sincere … is that what you meant?” 😉
What about you? Can I give you permission to identify BEYOND what you do for a living? Will you take up the challenge to ask people deeper, more human questions? Come share with me in the comments!
IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …
Rachel (& Kristen)
1-ON-1 COACHING IS OPEN FOR ENROLLMENT AGAIN!
The doors are open for new coaching clients now through this Friday, October 18
- We’ll be taking on about 20-25 people in this new wave.
- This is for people interested in getting started ASAP (October or early November).
- You don’t have to know for sure that you want to move ahead with coaching. You just have to be serious enough about it to want to have a conversation.
- We WILL have coaching spots open up in the coming months, before we take on the next “official” wave of clients (which won’t be until later in March 2020). So if you’re not ready now, or you’ve found us in-between “official” enrollment periods, then you can add your name to the wait list and we’ll contact you when we have an availability.
If you’re ready to talk about the possibility of coaching, fill out the form on this page and we’ll schedule a brief phone call with you!
And if you want a deeper conversation about our coaching process, listen to our episode from last Tuesday, October 8: Why career coaching has almost nothing to do with your career.