Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Who You Are vs. What You Do

Dear Brayden,

The world is a beautiful place. There is so much goodness to see around you. People will touch you with their love and kindness (if you let them). But society is not without its imperfections. People have misguided values and practices that can cause much hurt and confusion.

When adults converse in social settings, or meet each other for the first time, one of the first three questions asked is inevitably, "So what do you do?" People always ask about your profession. And while it can be a conversation builder (a lot of follow up questions can potentially stem from the answer), too often it is used as a measuring device. Too often, people judge you based solely on the answer to that question. They make an immediate decision about your worth and your character based on how you make a living. Society has prescribed arbitrary "values" to different professions - primarily stemming from either how much income the profession makes or how exclusive it is. What this does is relay the message that what you do is a reflection of your worth. And that's simply not true.

Unfortunately, this mentality stretches further than just the job you hold. It's about your achievements. Society has fallen into the sad trap of judging people not based on who they are, but based on what they have achieved. And that's a really dangerous thing. It can make people feel the need to have a "life resume" full of exciting and interesting successes rather than feeling that their character makes them unique and valuable to the world around them.

I will be the first to admit that even I'm susceptible to that feeling. People I meet always ask me what I do. And since right now I'm staying home to take care of our family, I often feel the need to explain. Instead of answering what I do now, I typically tell them how I used to be a political journalist, then taught high school English for a while, and am now taking a break to spend time with my baby. I'm proud of my achievements, but often put too much stock in their importance. Because the funny thing is, if you asked any one of my friends what they value most about me, they won't say my three degrees. They won't say my years spent as a sports reporter. They won't say my time spent at Oxford. They'll tell you they value my kind heart, my optimistic outlook on the world, and my cheerful nature. None of those things are accomplishments; they are just part of who I am.

The strange thing is, it's not always like that. You're almost 14 months old right now. No one cares about what you can do. People aren't judging you based on how developed your motor skills are or what milestones you've reached. In general, people know that babies develop along their own timeline. Instead, they notice how happy you are. They notice how much you enjoy having fun, exploring and interacting with other people. They notice your character.

So when does that change? When do some people start focusing more on what you do than who you are? I'm not really sure. In college, people ask you your major and often assign a value based on your answer (because of that arbitrary rule that makes engineering more "valuable" than theater). In high school, people look to your extra-curricular activities and grades (and often other artificial things that belong in an entirely different rant). But does it happen sooner than that? I already hear moms around me getting caught up in the achievement-race. "My son was walking when he was seven months old." "Well, my daughter is eleven months old and can already recite the alphabet." I know that children are sources of pride for parents. And I will inevitably be proud of your achievements someday. But putting so much focus on what people do instead of who they are just sends the mistaken message that that is what's important. I don't love you because you know your body parts or can imitate animal noises. And I'm not disappointed in you because you can't recite Shakespeare yet. I love you because of you.

As you grow up, I hope you'll see the fallacy in that line of thinking. Some of the most amazing individuals you meet will inevitably hold jobs that society does not deem as "worthy." Some of the people with the most strength of character you know will be people who do not carry a long list of achievements. Not only do I not want you to judge others based on what they do, but I don't want you to judge yourself that way either. Please know -- no matter what -- that although I will always be proud of what you do, I love you because of who you are. What you do doesn't make you special. Who you are does.

Love always,



  1. Oh my gosh! I love this! As a teacher, I can practically FEEL people judge me when I tell them what I do. It's even worse when they start talking about how lucky I am to have summers off or get out of work at 2. Funny that they think I'm lazy because of that, when I probably spend more time every week working than most of my non-teacher friends.

    You're totally right. Society judges based on profession and achievement and that's a really awful message to send to kids. What great insight!

  2. What a great message. It's unfortunate that so much of society judges us by what we "do." And I agree that far too often we also try to validate ourselves by the title of our profession, too.

    1. Thanks for the note, Allison. :) With any luck, I can help my little guy avoid validating himself with titles and such. It's such a sad societal trap.