A question that defines so much of our communication. It is ubiquitous in every interaction as if we have a quota to hit on the number of times we ask it. And it is not just to adults. We do it to kids and adolescents too; “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “Where do you want to go to college?”, “What are you majoring in?”, or the worst…”You should be/do ‘X’.”
It is seemingly innocent. People spent significant amounts of their time and energy in school and working, so it is only natural we would ask about it. AND, at what cost?
By defining an interaction or a person by what they do, we limit ourselves from getting to know who they are and the complexity of their whole self. Judgments pass, shame is induced, a battle for “King of the Hill” ensues - we can’t help it. We feel lesser or greater than others, due to the implicit biases we hold. We minimize our story to fit into the picture of a job or role in our lives. We discount the other ways we shine our light and values into the world because we focus on one part of a story. It’s like reading just one chapter of Harry Potter and walking away. We have all done it. Assumed someone’s skills, competencies, intelligence, or motivation from what they do. Assuming people settled or “gave up” when they are a server their whole life or decide to be a stay at home parent. We create a story based on bias rather than seeing how “what they do” is a part of the greater picture of “who they are” and “what they value”. As a culture, we assign value based on prestige, even without meaning to. And this social currency is what is exchanged between us to gain connection and belonging. What we do and how busy we are (more to come on busyness in a future email) dictates our “allowance” and by doing so, we continue to increase the gap between us and others outside of our professional scope.
And for kids and adolescents, it is worse. We, inadvertently, pigeon hole them. I remember getting asked all of the time what I wanted to do when I grew up or which college I would go to. I had selected before I even know myself. “A doctor,” I would say. And with that, the word became synonymous with “Kyira”; an identifier that was tattooed on my forehead for all to see. If I am being honest, I knew by the time I was in high school I didnt want to be a doctor. I knew who I was was different from who I set out to be. I knew I wanted to allow for the possibility of greatness beyond the boundaries of Wisconsin. And yet, the deeply embedded clinches of “A doctor” instilled in me a pressure I had to stay the course. And many of you know, but it was not until even a few years after college and thousands of dollars on exams, exam prep courses, applications and interviews that I finally accepted the diversion in the path to become who I wanted to be rather than do what I felt expected to do. Years of pretending and pressure building because when someone around me was asked those same questions and they said “I dont know,” I watched the look of judgment pass over them. I felt the anxiety ruminate from both parties. I didnt want that. I just wanted a plan. Little did I know that the pressures led me away from the path that truly mattered - the path to uncovering who I was as a person, not what I did.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am guilty of this too, especially when I feel uncomfortable. I don’t intend to ask it, I just get lost in my anxiety that auto-pilot kicks in. AND, I have watched the effect that question can have on someone’s confidence in an interaction and how it shifts the connection we create. I have seen the pain in teens and young adults when they come face to face with the truth about who they are, realizing the discrepancies with who they said they would be. I, too, work everyday to challenge myself to think about the little things we do and say and the impact that has as it builds up over time. Because we know if we are saying it, others are too.
So now, the question, ironically becomes, “What do I do?” How can we make the tiny shifts in our language and communication that can add up to big changes?
Not to worry. I am not going to tell you all about how we are getting it wrong without a tool to help you get it “right”.
Check out the handout below that lists 10 questions we can ask other than “What do you do?”.
Comment below on which question best resonates with you or with another question idea you can shared with others!
If you would like to download a PDF copy, click here.
And with that, I will leave you with this awesome quite by Wayne Dyer:
“I am a human being, not a human doing. Don’t equate your self-worth with how well you do things in life. You aren’t what you do. If you are what you do, then when you don’t…you aren’t.”
For more information about living your best life, check out the resources available to you on my website, here.