When I Grow Up…
A couple of recent conversations have reminded me how I have long been uncomfortable with the emphasis our society places on career as the basis of identity.
It’s in the ritual question we ask a stranger: So what do you do?
It is generally assumed that what is most relevant and interesting to others is the particular way in which we have been able to monetize ourselves. The consensus is that this defines us. And this shapes assessments about our relative success, worthiness, potential, and status.
Since I started freelancing a few years ago, I’ve observed my own shift. My work is kind of all over the place. So I don’t have a simple label or title. Contrary to the prevailing advice out there from the world of marketing, I haven’t managed to come up with a “personal brand.” To use a silly tech metaphor, rather than a solid Ruth 2.0 product, I feel like I may be in alpha testing mode indefinitely. And, at this moment anyway, I don’t really seem to care.
I no longer think of myself in terms of a professional role. And I’m extremely grateful for the way that the lack of structure in freelancing (at least the way I do it) has given me the space to relate to my life as so much more than an occupational box. The thing that’s striking to me now as I look back is how much bandwidth – how much life force – my career was using up. And how much anxiety it generated, both in terms of emotional claustrophobia, and also in the sense that there were always more rungs on the professional ladder and I was never quite where I needed to be.
I still notice how deep the programming is. I still feel its impact.
It was a scary thing to walk away from the herd and its rules when all my life I was told that the herd and its rules would keep me safe. I still feel the disapproval sometimes. Questions. Pity, even. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
There’s a steady, relentless pressure out there to shape ourselves into something acceptable and worthy. The weight of it is exhausting. Embedded within is the constant, merciless message that we are not OK the way we are. Perhaps the pressure to conform is inherent in any human society. But there are biases and dynamics at play in our culture – e.g. patriarchy, domination, technocracy, post-Cartesian abstraction, capitalism – that make this modern variant seem especially oppressive to me.
The forces that are out there devouring and diminishing nature are doing the same thing to us. Most of us just don’t see the irony.