By Amy Mackin
“What do you do?”
New graduates are frequently asked this question for the first time once they land that initial professional job and begin to find themselves at various corporate fundraisers, holiday parties, and networking events.
Most will answer with the same two words. “I work as an assistant to a partner at such and such a law firm” or “I work as an intern for such and such nonprofit” or “I work as a freelance copyeditor.” They’ll answer this way because that’s what they’ll do; they’ll work. They might go on to describe how they landed that current position or what some of their day-to-day duties include.
I answered this question in the same way for over twenty years of my working life. Sometimes I’d feel proud, depending on the company I worked for or the person I was talking to; sometimes I’d feel inferior.
Family circumstances eventually resulted in my becoming a stay-at-home parent, and I avoided the question for a while. Fifteen years into this adventure that included three children, one of whom did not thrive within the public school system and is now homeschooled, I felt ready to have a career again, at least in some capacity. I had worked part-time and freelance jobs to make ends meet, but nothing that I could do, or would even want to do, on a full-time basis. To further complicate matters, I still needed enough flexibility to work around my children’s needs—facilitating my son’s home-based education, or driving him and my other kids to and from camps, sports, and extracurricular activities.
I reevaluated my life, knowing full well that whatever field I chose to pursue, starting over after so long would be a challenge. If I was going to exert the energy necessary, I decided I would focus on building a career revolved around the work I love, the work I’d been doing all along as time allowed, without pay, for the pure joy it brought me—writing.
Preliminary research into the formal publishing process was arduous, as was the constant rejection and rewriting, but it felt right—an earned exhaustion—the way you are supposed to feel when you are inextricably connected to the work that you do. I kept at it, still working those part-time jobs on the side, and eventually some of my essays got published.
At a playground several months ago, right after I had completed my first novel, my son and I were approached by a child we had never met before. The boy looked to me and asked, “Who are you?”
Who am I?
This is the child’s equivalent of “What do you do?” However, children don’t dance around trying to be polite—they cut right to the chase, uncensored and unabashed. They still believe that what you do IS who you are.
In that moment, I didn’t wish I had a different answer. I felt neither superior nor inferior.
“My name is Amy. I’m a writer. And I’m a mom. This is Henry, and he’d like to play with you.”
The boy looked at my son and then back at me.
“You like to write stories?” the boy asked.
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“Cool. I like to read stories.”
“Yeah? Me too.”
With that, he said, “Come on, Henry, I’ll show you around.”
No conversation with a past colleague, mentor, or manager ever felt so genuine. Leave it to a child to simplify what we adults make so complicated.
I now encourage all new college graduates embarking on the first chapter of their professional lives, or anyone at a new juncture in his or her career, not to answer “What do I do?” but instead ask “Who am I?”
They might not know the answer yet, and that’s okay, but it’s important to keep asking. It should be asked with the directness of a child, without all the adult complications, obligations and hang-ups. It should be asked when one feels lost, unfulfilled, or confused. It should also be asked in moments of pride and accomplishment.
For some, the answer may be clear early on. For others, like me, it may take years to reveal itself. The real work is not in a chosen occupation as much as in the task of keeping what one does aligned with who one is as circumstances throughout life change.
And, be assured, circumstances will change, sometimes drastically. Many will find themselves down on their luck at one point or another, taking any job they can get, and then the challenge may not be about the work being done as much as how one chooses to do it, in order to remain authentic to oneself.
When we’re young, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that we are what other people define us as—the title our employer gives us or the social group we fall into. When we’re older and established, fear of change or a desire for security can prevent us from reexamining our actions and pursuits.
However, in the end, success is not measured by the titles after our names, the numbers on our paychecks, the awards we’ve received, the people we know, or the prestige of the organizations listed on our resumes. True success depends only upon our ability to answer that one question—Who am I?—when it really matters, and then having the courage to live in accordance with the answer.
Amy Mackin is a Boston-area novelist and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, The Writer, The Washington Post, Literary Mama, and others. She blogs at www.amymackin.com, tweets as @MackinWriting, and is currently working on a women’s fiction series.
Illustration by Christine Juneau