ONE MAN’S QUEST TO PROVE HE’S MORE THAN JUST A MANNY
One of my first jobs was selling women’s shoes at Nordstrom, and saying that always felt shameful. People would snicker when I’d say it, crack a joke about old-lady bunions, or accuse me of having a foot fetish. The job itself was actually rad. I loved the people I worked with, made some decent scratch, and had a pretty laid-back schedule. But the judgement was palpable every time it came up in conversation, like I was being perceived as a poor-man’s used car salesman. A young Al Bundy, minus the unrivaled swagger and sexy, sarcastic wife (since rectified).
I also worked as a busser, server, construction grunt, and secretary in my late teens and early twenties. All jobs that felt equally, if not more, shameful when forced to discuss socially. I loathed watching people’s eyebrows raise with judgement, as they fumbled to attach some positive, yet patronizing, spin to my line of work. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s a great job! Everyone has to start somewhere.” Barf.
While I was in college, I ascended job-shame-Mount-Olympus by taking a gig as a nanny for a family with five young kids. At this, people couldn’t even pretend to be polite. My peers would cackle like hyenas at the first mention of it. “You’re a manny! Do you change diapers all day?” Even if they didn’t mean any disrespect, I felt it, like I was the butt of a snarky joke. People would even call me over at parties and introduce me as that guy, “the one I was telling you about – the manny!”
As a society, I believe we’ve been conditioned to ask people “what they do” as a means of trying to understand “who they are.”
Again consistent with the previous jobs I’d felt socially shamed for, I enjoyed being a manny. The family had four boys, and I felt like a big brother to each of them. It was rewarding work, it paid well, and was flexible enough to help support me through my last few years of college. Plus, it gave me a platform to educate young people about the most critically important lessons in life. Such as, “Baseball is the greatest sport ever. And if anyone tells you otherwise, you tell ‘em they’re full of shit.”
After I graduated, I quickly joined the corporate ranks, which came with a big sigh of relief. Finally I had a job that didn’t come with so much social persecution – one I could be excited to share with new acquaintances, and equipped with a huge, new ceiling for earning potential. I could afford to get rid of my old car, with its chipped paint and exposed-spring driver’s seat. I could finally join discussions with my corporate buddies about margins and dividends, forecasts and contract values, or whatever they seemed to be yammering about all the time. “Big boy jargon,” I figured; the kind of shit you talk about when you’ve finally made it.
Any relief of having “arrived,” however, was short lived. As the years passed, and my success at scaling the corporate ladder accelerated, a bubble began to form between the glowing social perception of my career and the lack of personal satisfaction it yielded me. With each bump in pay and title came a representative dip in happiness and fulfillment, presenting newly found challenges related to discussing my career with people.
It’s not that I resent my own personal employment history; it’s that I resent how socially obligated I am to identify with it. I work, therefore I am.
“Oh wow, tech sales? What a great gig! You must make a killing!” was the general sentiment I’d hear when people heard about my job – a far cry from the judgmental, pseudo-sympathetic words of encouragement I was offered when discussing my previous, less lucrative occupations. But doubly unwelcome. At least when I was slangin’ stilettos, people had the awareness not to dwell on it, understanding that my job likely wasn’t something I overly identified with. It was a necessary pit stop on the road to a more lucrative endeavor.
But when it came to a high-falutin’ corporate career, all bets were off. I’d reached the occupational ivory tower, or close enough, according to most folks, and people weren’t shy about discussing it ad nauseam. They’d either ask too many questions or use it as an opportunity to springboard into a long-winded monologue about their own professional achievements and earning potential.
After years of feeling forced to constantly over-socialize and identify with a career that yielded increasingly diminishing returns in my personal life, the bubble popped. And once it did, it sent me whirling around the country on an existential quest for self-actualization. Initially, I was angry. I railed against San Francisco, technology, corporate America – you name it – compulsively. Anything even remotely associated with my former career was fair game for an explosive diatribe. Every time I put pen to paper, I vented about how much I still resented it.
Fuck their job title, what’s their story?
And vent I did, successfully, to the point that eventually I was able to detox all the rage and resentment from my system. Since then, life’s felt breezy. But for as much growth and self-discovery as I’ve done in the last six months, people still ask me what I do for work, and even in my zen state, the question still bothers me, like an itch I can’t quite reach. But after some reflection, I think I’ve diagnosed why.
As a society, I believe we’ve been conditioned to ask people “what they do” as a means of trying to understand “who they are.” It’s not that I resent my own personal employment history; it’s that I resent how socially obligated I am to identify with it. I work, therefore I am. A mentality that does a terrible job of actually defining who I am as a person, and an awful trailhead to start wandering down when you’re trying to make a genuine connection, or get to know a new acquaintance.
What one does for a living is such a small, ineffective representation of who that somebody actually is. I want to know how they spend their time away from work. What are their values? Are they kind? Are they patient? Do they think critically? Are they self-aware? Do they have compassion? What are their experiences? Their hobbies? Their personal successes, trials, and tribulations? Fuck their job title, what’s their story?
I believe we need to reprogram ourselves to ask these questions so we can better, more accurately understand our fellow humans. Because the current criteria for evaluating an individual, on the primary basis of their job and income, is not only inaccurate, it’s dangerous. It informs the framework for how we marginalize people on economic grounds. How we villainize poor people, immigrants, and refugees, and conversely, how we glamorize certain disreputable public figures on the basis of their fortunes and fame.
I don’t know what my next career will be. Maybe I’ll continue to just scrape by financially in my enlightened haze of self-discovery and artistic pursuit. But I do know, that no matter what shape my future career and earning potential takes, I’ll no longer let it define me. Nor will I allow myself to evaluate others on the grounds of what they do or how much they make.
What’s your story?