From day one, we are confined to a box. Before the age old, “what do you do?” question, it was,”what do you want to do with your degree?” and before that, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” as if these could possibly define the entirety of who you are. More than annoying, this question subconsciously creates a framework of how we view ourselves, and the expectations we are supposed to have.

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The Problem

1. We lose sight of what’s important. When we are stuck in the mindset of climbing the corporate ladder, or watching the bank account grow, or achieving the next milestone in our lives, we tend to focus more on being the best [fill in the blank] lawyer, professor, nurse, etc. and we forget about being the best father, wife, friend, good samaritan.

2. We confuse happiness with success. If left unchecked for too long, this “bigger, better, best” attitude will lead to our happiness being tied to our success, if not replaced by it altogether. If your business venture fails, you will perceive yourself as a failure, when the truth is you were courageous enough to step out on a limb in the first place.

3. We define ourselves by our job and not our passions. The biggest danger here is not only in the implications for limiting ourselves, but the implications for limiting how we see others. Society tells us that some jobs are more valuable than others because of their salary, or perceived power. With this attitude in the back of our heads, it is easy then to associate the worth of a job to the worth of a person.

The Solution

Look for the eternal things within the temporary things. Your job may be a stepping stone, or a necessary means to pay the bills, but you can still be the kind of person who shows up on time with a good attitude. A popular coping mechanism might be to compartmentalize your life – for example, I’m a wife, a social content coordinator, a Sunday school teacher. Instead, look at the bigger picture, and be consistent in every area of your life. I am a married Sunday school teacher who coordinates social content. Just be yourself, no matter what hat you’re wearing. The ultimate goal is not to meet a deadline or check off personal time with the hubby, but (for me) to be woman of integrity who is not only competent at her job, but doesn’t have to stand on top of others to do it.

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Redefine happiness. A more appropriate word may be “content.” Learn how to accept failures or not living up to whatever picture you thought you had of how your life would turn out. This is not to say “settle,” but rather free yourself from any obligation to the younger you who thought she’d have her first book published by now and be sipping wine from the deck of her yacht. (Instead of chipping away at student loans in her one bedroom apartment.) This will free you to live in the moment, and take advantage of opportunities life gives you. For me, getting married in college was never part of the plan, and it took me a little longer to complete my degree, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Life is more than achieving goals; in fact, life is what happens in the spaces in between.

Figure out who you are, really. As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, we are often defined by what we “do.” I’ve never been more aware of this than in the few months after my husband was laid off. It’s the first question we ask in a feeble attempt to sum up who is standing in front of us. “So, what do you do?” Awkward pause. “Uh, well, I’m sorta in-between jobs right now, I’m looking for something in the medical field, but, well, you know, times are tough…” There are literally hundreds of things my husband was “doing” at the time, yes a large part of his time was spent job hunting, but he also lead a small group at our church, did some free lance painting of models for a board game, and let’s face it, being married to me is a full time job in and of itself. Yet the default answer to “what do you do?” or even, “who are you?” is usually a summary of your job. Take some intentional time to get to know yourself, and your passions. Try having at least three things that define you other than your job. The more, the better.

If the first step in combating the social structure contained in the dreaded “what do you do” is having a better answer, then maybe the second step is asking a better question. Try one of these on for size next time you find yourself meeting new people:

– What do you love to do?

– What do you want to be known for?

– What do you wish you had more time to do?

– What are you reading?