Sunday, October 09, 2005

Work as Identity Redux

Eight months ago, I briefly explored the idea of work as identity. This morning I awoke to thoughts of a similar vein, thinking about how much my identity revolves around being "a nurse", and to a lesser extent, "a teacher". It is an idea worth exploring further. Interestingly, I was recently asked permission to be linked on a blog which studies and follows work-related blogs, and I took the time to answer a questionnaire by said Scottish blogger/researcher.

As I wrote back in February, most people respond to the question "What do you do?" by describing their work-life, as if this is their defining role/identity: "I am a teacher/doctor/programmer/consultant/etc." It is rare and unexpected that someone responds in a more creative and less acculturated way: "I am a mother/father/son/lover/gardener/reader." Is this the same in other cultures? I would love to know.

For me, I still struggle and consider what it means to be myself in the world. How do I define myself? What is my place in the world? Some would say that, at 41 years old, one should be well aware of one's place, one's significance in the larger scheme. But I would counter that an examined life involves frequent questioning and retooling of one's identity, or at least thoughtful examination of one's suppositions and assumptions about oneself. It's easy to be complacent, but the examination of oneself can be revealing (and hopefully not too disheartening, as long as one is open to needed alterations in self-perception).

At this juncture of my life, being a decade into my first real "career", my "nurseness" carries a great deal of weight in my self-identity. In my late teens and early twenties, I was an "artist"---attending (and subsequently dropping out of) both the Philadelphia College of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. With a lack of discipline and without the stucture of school, "artist" gave way to "waiter", "bookstore manager", then "massage therapist", "yoga teacher", "housecleaner", "personal care attendant", and eventually "nurse". So here I am, Nurse Carlson, or as many of my Puerto Rican patients say, "Doktor Keet" (you do the accent).

Whether I have written it here in this venue or not, I do sincerely long for a day when my identity does not revolve around work. I look forward to a day when I simply am an individual in the world, living a good life and doing good things in the world. I do not generally define myself as "an American", although I do define myself as a married forty-something man with an incredible son and wonderful wife. Even those and other labels: father, husband, heterosexual, man, homeowner, citizen--what do they describe? What do they say about me as a person? Do they describe my presence in the world, my contributions to society at large? The answer is yes and no, of course, but mostly no. Those words offer mental pictures, generalizations upon which larger suppositions can be based, but they do not define who "Keith Carlson" is, nor should they.

The next time I am at a party or social gathering, I would like to challenge myself to answer differently when questioned about "what I do". How can I finesse such a conversation? How long will it take for me to eventually blurt out, "I'm a nurse"? How long would it take for the questioner to say, "Yes, you are a husband and father and reader, but what do you DO?" How long until I give in and launch into my "tape" about my work? Can the other person be fully satisfied by our conversation without safely wrapping me in a box labeled clearly with a defined career?

There is something else to bear in mind that can easily reveal our cultural judgements about certain occupations. If someone we meet responds to the same question regarding work with a sentence that begins with, "Oh, I'm just a __________"---you fill in the blank---how do we respond to such a statement? What do we immediately think when the person says they are "just" a secretary, a janitor, a housekeeper, a clerk, a delivery person, a home health aide? What does it mean when an individual verbally apologizes for their work by preceding their title with the word "just"? Do they expect us to judge them? Do they expect pity? Do they feel less-than in the broader sense of work being intrinsically tied to identity and worth in our image-obsessed culture? They do not necessarily want pity, but they most certainly must feel afraid of being judged, and must often feel that their place in the world may be seen as less glamorous, less important, less crucial to the workings of the societal machine.

Let's be honest---an individual says that they are a mechanic or window-washer and many of us--myself included--will immediately think classist thoughts, or mentally pigeon-hole that individual as working class or under-educated. Do we know for a fact that the window-washer is uneducated? Do we know that he doesn't go home and study existentialism and publish a blog about his findings? Do we know whether he has eschewed another career for a simple life wherein he can pursue his intellectual interests without the burden of 40 hours of work and a long commute to pay for the student loans he never wanted? We must challenge our assumptions about others and their relative "value" in the world. We must try to define others by their actions, not their labels. This is a message to myself as much as to anyone reading this missive. It is a universal message, and one worthy of introspection and practice.

As for me, my identity is currently intrinsically tied to my career, my work, my self-as-nurse. Many nurses appear to feel similarly, even after retirement, perhaps because nurses are held in such high esteem in this culture. If one were asked about their instinctive desire to trust a dentist, nurse, or lawyer, I would assume most people would choose to trust the nurse, even before meeting that person. Whether that is a fair judgement or not, I believe it to be true, and our culture continually reinforces such stereotypes in myriad ways.

Thus, the challenge is to meet others and interact in the wider world with as little judgement and preconceived notions as possible, measuring others by their character and personality, not by their stated career or self-definition. The next time I speak to the janitor at the school where I teach, I will open myself to him a little more. I know his name because I asked, but what more can I know? What makes him tick? Why is he as interesting---or more interesting--than the president of the college? Yes, he is a janitor---that is how he puts food on the table---but he is so much more. And I am more than a nurse and teacher. "Human being" is a good place to start, and that definition levels the playing field for us all.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful, insightful, thoughtful, and deeply thought/felt idea. Perhaps you could start a 'movement' in which we are no longer 'defined' by our jobs. however...'being' a writer is something i am always proud and eager to divulge, without the prequalifying 'just' inserted before it. when others ask, "what do you do?" I answer: I help people laugh. I enjoy watching the frustration in the face of the person asking the question as I am more adamant at evading their silly pigeon-holing questions than they are persistent in their wanting to know. I don't like enabling others to label me in their narrow-minded ways, and so i studiously evade their invasive prying with answers that are least as far as they're concerned. do i care? No.

In no other place are the citizens so bold and affrontive than america when asking such things. I've even been asked, quite rudely, I might add: how much do you make?

Did i answer that one? no. i simply laughed and walked away.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah...and you forgot one in your list of self-descriptives:


Anonymous said...

Broadly speaking there are said to be two forms of identity: social identity where we are aware of the groups we associate ourselves with (e.g. I am 'x' kind of worker, father, brother, supporter of such a team, etc.), and, the categorised identity - where others put us into categories we are often unaware of until told of this decision. Work-related identity begins with categorisation, i.e. your job is to do this and this, etc. However, later on we associate ourselves more and more with a personal or peer-related interpretation of our given identity, i.e. my employer sees my role as 'x' but I see my role as being some of 'x' and something you add to it.

You also hit on ideas of what some call 'work-centrality' and the extent to which work defines not only our day-to-day life, but also how it shapes our identity and in turn, how we behave.

People who have a strong sense of their identity often won't act without the consent of their peer group (whatever or whoever this is). People who do not have a strong sense of identity have little loyalty to the social groups from which they belong - they often act without the influence of their peers.

Identity is a fascinating subject and well worth investigating - i.e. it explain a hell of lot about why we behave in certain circumstances in certain ways.

cHrIStine said...

A good article. Recently, I am wondering the question of identity crisis in my working place. You article helps to to think about this issue!

Keith "Nurse Keith" Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC said...

Thanks to you all for commenting. This issue does seem to strike a nerve with many people and I hope to revisit it again when the time is right and I have done some more thinking. Are there any blogs that address this issue specifically? Must do a concerted search....Have you found any, James?

Anvilcloud said...

Thanks for these two wonderful and thought-provoking essays.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Connected to this is positive organzational scholarship and how a positive-based framework can lead to finding meaningfulness in and at work.