You are not your job
I remember sitting in a small office in a battered old building built in the 1940’s shortly after the Marines
first arrived at Camp Pendleton. It was as well preserved as could be for having been in continual use for
over sixty years. The evidence of the ever changing occupation was clear. Multiple layers of quickly
applied paint. Bumps and cracks in the walls, floors, and ceilings from the removal and relocation of
interior walls. The offices were always well maintained and clean but over time the buildings themselves
took on an aged personality. There was a settledness about them. Under the scent of fresh brewed, all
be it low cost, coffee, lingered a soft musty smell from the wood that had seen too many rainy winters.
There was the sound of keyboards being tapped, orders being issued, and rap or country music playing
low in the background. It was always busy in this building, Marines preparing to go or returning from
somewhere far away, but in the warm late afternoons, the work seemed to find and settle in to its pace and
a lazy comfort in the familiar exercise of the day enveloped everything and everyone. These where the
times when you could image yourself staying here forever. Becoming a lifer. Making it to retirement when
either age or apathy force you to leave.
Sitting there in a broken down office chair that was remarkably comfortable. Talking about, but mostly
listening to, everyone’s plans for the days and the weeks ahead with a small group of fellow Marines. Our
XO came in and joined the conversation. He was a Major and we where all enlisted; mostly Sergeants and
corporals with a lance here and there. We all worked on a Generals staff so Majors and Colonels were like
leaves on a tree, you noticed them but focused on the tree. The Major was older by Marine standards,
early forties. He had joined right out of college and was now on the edge of retirement. Within six months
he would be referred to as Jim or Bob or Bill instead of sir. He had one job his whole life to this point. It
was admittedly an all consuming job. One that was design to conform you, to format you like a computer
hard drive, to perform the functions for which you had been purchased. On top of that it was a job that
was esteemed by most and embodied a sense of fraternity like no other. He was a Marine.
With all this it was no wonder the even as he spoke of how great it was going to be, to be out, how he was
set with a good retirement; how he had his dream place already picked out and the big plans he had in
store, that behind it all was a palatable sense of fear. A fear that was almost unknown to most in that
room. Many of whom were to young to have had enough experience to notice it and the rest having spent
most of there time in the service though less then the major so they wouldn’t understand it if they did
I was a reservist at the time, having rejoined the Corps after five years in the civilian world. I had already
gone through three career fields and numerous jobs. I had settled into contracting and project work and
was used to being somewhere different every other month. The money had been good but it had taken a
few years to really get used to a life style that was ever changing. It was like going to a different school
every couple of weeks. The uncertainness when you arrive. The disconnected feelings. Having to get to
know and fit into a new system. After awhile I had developed confidence in myself and ability to adapt to
new situations. I realized that what I did to earn money and provide for my family; that was just what I did,
not who I was and it made little difference where I did it. For the companies I worked at where like flavors
of ice cream, each had a different accident and color but they were all cold and sweet.
I saw the look of concern on the major’s face that day. I could here a tremble in his words and the
trepidation in his speech. He was not afraid of the civilian world. Bullets still bounced off of him. He was
afraid of losing himself, though I doubt he realized it concisely. In a few months, he would have to turn in
his super suite and then who would he be?
If you have never been in the service and especially the Marine Corps this may seem strange to you. It
might seem something distant that you could see for the military but that is not a world you are a part of
and don’t see yourself joining. But don’t count it out so quickly. I have worked in a lot of different
companies in many different industries; public, private, corporate, federal contractors, government and the
fact remains consistent, that people define themselves by what they do and where they do it. It is human
nature to try to identify ourselves. To define and thus added purpose to our existence. It is only natural
that you would start with the places and things that consume the largest parts of your days and efforts.
You are likely to spend at least eight hours at work nine with lunch then the drive to and from is another
hour plus getting ready for and unwinding from work. And there is no one I have ever met who can and
has truly separated themselves from work mentally or emotionally when they walk out he door. That’s
about half of your normal day. Taking out weekends, vacations, and periods of school, or unemployment.
Your job is likely a good third of your life.
The overwhelming pull is to take that into account and make that the base of how you define yourself; of
who you are. But it is a trap. It will draw you in and can spit you out. You go to school and train and think I’
m going be a lawyer, doctor, police officer, contractor, engineer, teacher or you start a job and think I’m a
clerk, attendant, waiter, and employee. It doesn’t matter what job you do, who you do it for, or where you
do it. It is just a job. You will likely quit, be fired, get laid off and have to search for a new job, move to a
different location, go back to school, or change careers. And in doing so there will be many and varied
effects on you, your family, your friends and your psyche. The trick is to define yourself with things that
are less portable and transitional. Things like your family, or friends you have had and keep out side of
work or things you do and enjoy Faith, Reading, sports. You want to define yourself with things you
choose and that can not be taken away by someone else.
You are not your job. You are not your career. You are not anything you do. At least I hope you are
not for when you stop doing it and at some point you will stop doing it. Then you are nothing.
Work is a part of your life and will be a part of your self identification but it should be a minimal part as it is
not permanent and it is not within your control. If you allow yourself to be defined by what you do then you
are setting yourself up for failure. The more connected you are to your job the more resistant to change
you will be. The more valuable the job is to you the more you will put up with to keep it. In the end if you
define yourself by your job then keeping the job at all cost becomes the goal and you defeat the purpose
of the job to simply make money and provide while you work toward your goals.
The Lesson to Learn:
Defining yourself by what you do for a living makes it difficult to adjust and adapt to an ever changing
market place. It lessens your ability to negotiate and improve your situation. You loose control and are at
the mercy of your employer. And remember companies don’t have feelings.
The Brutal Truth:
If you define yourself by your job then at some point in your life you will be nothing.