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“So, what do you do?”

How many times have we heard (or asked) that question, meeting someone for the first time at a party, a charity event, a church dinner? It comes almost immediately after the exchange of names and determines how the rest of that conversation, maybe even that relationship, is going to go.

That’s not the only defining question people ask us. In college, it’s, “What’s your major?” As a parent, it’s, “How many kids do you have?” [And before you have kids, it’s often, “How long have you been married? When are you going to have kids?”] But no matter how it sounds, it all boils down to this: “What do you do?”

Asking these questions seems like a quick way to get to know someone, but it’s really a quick way to place them in a mental bucket, boxing them in and making lightning fast assumptions about who they are, based on what they do.

But it’s not just other people who do it to us. I do it to myself all the time.

When I was laid off from my job and (nearly) simultaneously delivered a preemie, I experienced a major identity crisis. For so many years, I was the job. I thought what I did defined who I was. So when I no longer had a job description to call my own and was handed a new job – being a mom – I really didn’t know who I was anymore.

Though I looked pretty much the same on the outside (minus the scars that carrying a baby inevitably brings), all the things, all the doing, that I’d thought made up my essence were missing. Until I found something new to do, I lost my grasp on who I was.

Even now, I start many evenings with my husband by listing my day’s accomplishments. “I washed your uniforms and emptied the dishwasher. And we went to the library, and I read her four stories. And I’m going to start dinner in just a minute.”

It’s as if I feel like I must justify my existence, my worth – and the only way I can do this is by announcing everything I’ve done.

That’s not true, though. For me, the falseness of that belief has become clear when I realize how unsatisfying a life of doing is and when other people seem to be dissatisfied with my doing. I love this from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

“Dying people can teach us this most directly. Often the attributes that define them drop away–the hair, the shape, the skills, the cleverness. And then it turns out that the packaging is not who that person has really been all along. Without the package, another sort of beauty shines through. . .

“[I]t turned out that the essence of Pammy wasn’t about the things she could do with her hands. Who she was wasn’t about doing at all. . . You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness,
and then some surprising connections appear.”

You are not defined by what you do. What you do is not who you are.

Did you hear that? You are not what you do. And you know what else? You are not what you don’t do, either.

You are not earning straight A’s.
You are not winning the big game.
You are not getting the scholarship or the job or the raise.

You are not academic probation.
You are not detention.
You are not missing the shot, blowing the interview, losing your motivation.

You are not organizing your desk and paying your bills on time.
You are not lining your shelves and decorating your entryway.
You are not folding the laundry and washing the dishes and sweeping the floor.
You are not neglecting your yard and shoving it all under your bed.
You are not fixing breakfast and driving to school and coaching the team.
You are not forgetting the lunch and missing the field trip and yelling for quiet.

You are not building a brand.
You are not establishing a name.
You are not managing a reputation.
You are not growing your numbers, followers, subscribers and friends.

You are not writing a book.
You are not giving a speech.
You are not singing a song or playing the drums.
You are not starting a business.
You are not closing a business.
You are not declaring bankruptcy, moving again or starting over.

You are not fitting into your skinny jeans.
You are not eating an entire bag of croutons.
You are not smoking that cigarette.
You are not eating that salad.
You are not running a marathon.
You are not watching another Law & Order marathon.

You are not owning a house.
You are not renting an apartment.
You are not living at your parents’ house.

You are not having kids.
You are not getting married.
You are not being single.
You are not staying, fighting, winning, walking away.

You are not what you do – or don’t do. You are not defined by what you do.


This post was originally published here in April 2012, and it seemed appropriate as we start a new year with new dreams, new motivation, new goals or even just one new word.

This week I’ll be linking up with Holley Gerth for her first Coffee for Your Heart post, where she asks us to share what we’d like to say to the people we care about.


This post may be linked to these amazing carnivals and link parties.

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