It’s natural to label people by their occupations. She’s a cardiologist. He’s an accountant. They are teachers. Labeling people by their job titles isn’t a bad thing. Judging them for what kind of work they do is, on the other hand, patently unfair. And we all do it.
When someone asks me what I do, are they really wondering how much money I make? Or simply deciding whether my job title is interesting enough to continue a conversation? In any event, a label is proffered, and subsequently judged.
The concern is when we label and then judge ourselves. If I’m a paramedic who saves lives every day, am I more important than the cashier at my local grocery store? If I’m an attorney whose hourly billing rate is $500, does that make me a better person than the minimum wage worker at McDonald’s?
It’s a trap. What I do is not who I am.
Tom Cruise, on the other hand, in a promo for “Top Gun Maverick” says “I’m a fighter pilot. It’s not what I am, it’s who I am.” That commercial irked me because I’m not a fan of the actor, and I’m definitely not a fan of the sentiment. Then I reminded myself that it’s cinema, not reality.
What if we defined ourselves by our own core values? I am open-minded, efficient, pragmatic, and sometimes goofy.
What if we defined ourselves by our relationships instead of by what we do? I’m a loyal friend, a supportive aunt, and a dependable neighbor.
What if we defined ourselves by our passions? I love to cook, I watch football, I write every day, I volunteer my time.
Are you getting a picture of who I am without my even mentioning what I do?
I’m going to challenge you to answer these three questions: (1) what is one of your core values? (2) what are your most important relationships? and (3) what are you passionate about? Answer quickly without over-thinking and then see whether your job title comes into play.
Which begs the question, how can we avoid the trap of labeling ourselves and others by their job titles?
Breaking the habit of labeling is the first step. I would love to start a conversation when meeting someone new by first asking about their passions or interests before asking “what do you do?”
The next step in avoiding the labeling trap would be to . . . wait for it . . . actually listen to the other person and ask a follow-up question. Maybe showing a sincere interest in someone else will help you to reserve judgment for a while, and free you to draw your own conclusion without labels.
Another concept to avoid the trap is to try to figure out the value someone brings to their job simply by showing up and doing the work. Maybe it’s not about their actual job at all, but rather about the responsibility to their elderly parents, or teaching their children to have a healthy work ethic. Isn’t that what’s really important?