Who Cares?

June 19, 2016 – It’s Father’s Day and I woke up thinking about Dad. He passed away October 1st but, because of Alzheimer’s, we lost him before then.

Sometimes I think his disappearance wasn’t as painful as Mom’s, but then I realize that the grieving process was much longer and more drawn out; by the time he died we all knew it was inevitable.

It was painful, horribly painful, and it seemed to last forever.

I can’t imagine what it felt like to him.

For me it was an ongoing ache that wouldn’t end.

And then it did.

And it was devastating.

And I was in a truck with a young engineer I didn’t know well, on a road trip, on the way home. After some initial tears, I more or less held it together until we got on the ferry, and then I just went down to the car deck and cried over the edge into the dark ocean passing underneath the vessel.

I miss him terribly.

Even though he is gone, his lessons remain.

Both of my parents believed it important to be curious, to be respectful, to be charitable, to give freely and without expectation, to constantly be learning, and to be humble.

I don’t always excel at all of those, but I try.

Humble, that one I’m usually pretty good at. Maybe too good. But that’s another post (Why are we so Hard on Ourselves?)

My entire life I’ve not shied away from risks. I’ve made major life choices that could have gone very badly, but when things went well I have always just chalked it up to blind luck, not skill. That’s the imposter in me coming out.

But we spend so much time thinking about what we do, and what our place in the world is. Some people are obsessed with identifying their “tribe”.

Why are we so obsessed with labelling each other.

More importantly, why are we so obsessed with labelling ourselves?

I was having a conversation on this vein with a colleague the other week. We were talking about priorities in life, and how some people seem to have them backwards. Some people, most people in fact, define themselves by their job, and I think that’s rather sad. But it’s also understandable in a way.

Stop and think about it for a moment, what’s one of the first questions you ask when you meet someone?

What do you do?

And how do the majority of us answer that question? We tell the other person what our job is.

Why is that?

Hi Paige, nice to meet you, what do you do?

I am a biologist working for Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the Salmonid Enhancement Program, and I’m an Adjunct Professor at the University of British Columbia.

It’s a real answer, but it’s not a very “good” answer.

What we are really answering is both our own and the asker’s real questions, which are:

  • How much money do you make?
  • What is your socioeconomic status?
  • Based on your status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you?
  • Am I a rung above you?
  • Below you?
  • How should I judge you?
  • Are you worth my time?

Why the hell are we so worried about these things?

A better answer would be simply to change the question, don’t provide a job title, instead, why not tell the person you are meeting for the first time what you’re passionate about, and then change course by asking them what they are passionate about:

What do you do?” asks the stranger.

I’m passionate about writing (or gardening or sailing or photography),” you say, followed by, “What are you passionate about?

The conversation might take an interesting turn at this point, you might 1) get a blank stare, 2) get a cool response and hear that they’re also passionate about X, Y, or Z, and the conversation will veer off in a more heartfelt direction, or 3) find that the stranger cannot manage to veer away from the canned response and will attempt to recite their job title, to which you can respond, “That’s great. So you’re passionate about your job?” Eventually, you might end up discussing things you enjoy outside of your work hours.

I think that whole “if you are passionate about your work then it isn’t really work” thing is rubbish. If you can’t be passionate about something that “isn’t” your work it means that you are too focussed on one thing and aren’t opening yourself up to the wider world of wonder…although it is definitely important to be fulfilled by what you do for a living.

Conversations would be so much more interesting if they didn’t immediately revolve around work and so loaded with innuendos that are designed to put people in their “place” (Am I better than you? Are you better than me?).

But some people can’t turn work off; some are defined by their work, it’s all they really have to talk about. Some people have had the same job their entire life, it’s all they know, and they live in fear of a life without that work to define themselves. And, sadly, some of those people really do need to know where they stand on a ladder.

I think if we reframe the question we might move away from the importance of a job title from our lives.

Sure, it’s good to be proud of what you do but too many people love labels. Not Gucci or Prada (though I know some who love those too).

Social labels.

Social “Titles”.

Some titles are earned professionally, through years of training and rigorous evaluation. These are real titles and, in many cases, the people who have earned such titles, more often than not, don’t use them (or rather they be dropped in social circles). “Judge”, “Sergeant”, “Chief”, “Doctor”, “Chef” are all examples of titles that carry real weight to me because they represent years of effort to achieve.

But lots of people make up their own titles, or assume titles they haven’t earned, or they find a title they like and convince themselves, through some logic, that they are deserving of said title through time or effort and like to raise themselves up a bit. They don’t sound bad, they puff us up, make us feel self important, but they can have negative impacts on those around us, because when we use them we are effectively saying “I’m better than you because I have this fancy title”.

Like calling yourself a “Professional” something-or-other when there isn’t a recognized and accredited association that can strip him/her of the title for operating out of a set of boundaries.

Like using the title “Senior” when someone earns the same pay as others and holds the same classification, but they have merely been there more years; using “Senior” as a self given title when it hasn’t been conferred formally is isolating and can serve to alienate others.

“Certified” simply means someone took a voluntary credential in order to highlight a specialization or particular area of interest; there is generally no accountability or oversight to the title and may just mean that someone took a few weekend courses, learned something new, passed a test, etc. “Certification” and “Licenced” are very different and some people confuse those. Certain licences can be lost if a certain level of ethical responsibility is not maintained, or if the individual fails to engage in annual and ongoing education for credits. There is no such oversight on “Certified”.

There are many others, and all of them can be useful to identify status and placement on a social and professional ladder, and they can also reek of a lack of self confidence too. The use of personally self gratifying titles can make some feel better about themselves, but at the same time they can scream “I think I am better/smarter than you and since you don’t seem to know it, I’ll make sure I highlight my superiority in some manner”.

But we shouldn’t base respect of others on some title, conferred or self-identified.

Respect is earned by how we treat others, by behaviour, not by labels.

Dad taught me that.

I think we get so stressed about answering that first question when we meet someone new that we forget to actually make conversation. It’s not a job interview, it’s a question designed to find out “who you are” not “where you work”.

Hi, I’m Paige and I spend a great deal of my time learning about the world, at many levels, and how we interact with it. I also tend to think a lot about how we communicate with each other in our personal interactions.

If someone asked you “What do you do?“, how would you answer?

Maybe it shouldn’t include your job title, or any other “title”.

My Dad was a very successful man and he was a mentor to many. He was the most honest person I’ve ever met in my life, and he was humble. He believed fundamentally in respect for others and never, in any of my memories, do I recall him being intentionally cruel or derisive towards another. And he had a title too. The Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants awarded him with an FCA, the highest designation the Institute confers. The FCA, Fellow Chartered Accountant, is awarded for outstanding career achievements as well as outstanding service to the community and the profession. He was proud of his title, and he had every reason to be, but he never put it out there. He was humble, and even with a title, he knew he wasn’t any “better” than anyone else.

Major achievements and real titles are personal things, they don’t need to be shoved in the faces of others.

Dad taught me that.

My Dad loved cats…..

Your cat doesn’t care what you do for a living, as long as there is food in the bowl, a clean litterbox, and lots of love and attention he’s happy.

Cats are smart that way.

Maybe we can learn something from that.

My Dad loved cats…he taught me that too….