Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Do You Do? (or, Resisting a Career-Obsessed Culture)

Zach and I were finishing up our resupply at a little convenience store in southern Washington. It was early September, and with less than five hundred miles of PCT left, we were almost done! On our way out the door, we stopped to chat with one of the store attendants. As we talked, I mentioned that I was really excited to be going home soon. 

She asked, “Why, what do you do?” 

I stumbled over my words for a second before I stuttered, “I wash dishes in a sink and go out to lunch with my family.”

She gave me an odd look and chuckled. We exchanged friendly goodbyes, and Zach and I continued back toward the trail.

I was silent for a while, mulling over what had happened. Finally I said, “Isn’t it weird that people assume the only reason we’d want to go home is because of an awesome job?”

Zach agreed. It was weird.

Granted, I do love my job. Teaching is something I’ve always enjoyed. But in the end, I wasn’t excited about “real life” because of my job. I was excited because it was real life.

We live in an extremely career-oriented culture. People self-identify and categorize other people according to their jobs. Most personal introductions begin with, “This is so-and-so. He works for…”, and “What do you do?” is a common opening question. 
I could think of no better photo for this post than
my brothers-in-law on a giant hamster wheel.

These paradigms influence our thinking far beyond introductions. People judge each other according to their employment status, holding a strong view that jobs should be “good” (i.e., prestigious and high-paying) or part of a “dream career”— or both. 

On one side, everyone knows about the pressure to earn more money. The subliminal ideas of a “normal” life makes people feel the need to drive up their bank account. On the other hand, the pressure to seek personal fulfillment urges people to find their worth as human beings in their careers. Christians in particular are exhorted to “pursue their calling” at any cost— a calling most people assume is synonymous with “career.”

If someone works a lower-level job, as my husband does with his customer service job, people are constantly badgering us with their opinions, subtly or snidely remarking about how he needs to make more money— or needs to follow his dream. Few people pay attention to the fact that he is a good worker and earns a decent income which is enough to support us at this stage in our life. Few people seem to care about those details.

A flip side to this obsession is the idolization of non-work. This is the reason that almost every non-hiker we met along trail said, “I’m so jealous.” They were jealous that we were pursuing a dream that had nothing to do with a career, a trip that didn’t help us “get ahead,” a dream that had no utilitarian purpose. Some people practically worshipped us for this. Here we were, two dirty, intentionally homeless kids who were a drain on society because we were pursuing a crazy dream. And people thought we were heroes. 

Clearly, something is out of whack here. In this work-obsessed culture, people are often only valued if they either have a respectable career, or are wild-and-free nomads that all the workaholics envy.

Like most problems with the culture at large, there’s nothing I can do to overhaul the system. So, as usual, I work on overhauling myself.

Several weeks ago, I had a little breakdown. (The only reason I call it “little” is because I understand the phrase “big breakdown” much more after the PCT.) Zach hugged me. I cried. And I began to say things out loud that had been pent up inside.

“I don’t have to be a successful freelance author?”

“No,” Zach said, kindly and calmly.

“I don’t have to have a huge successful blog?”


“I don’t have to publish my memoir?”


I drew a deep breath, feeling the calm return. When I spoke my fears out loud, they seemed ridiculous— of course I don’t have to be a successful author to have a valuable and worthwhile life! Why did I let that assumption build up in my subconscious for so long?

As a Christian, I struggle to live my life in keeping with the teaching of the Bible. The Bible has a lot to say about work, but very little about career. It teaches us to work hard, to find pleasure in our toil (remember, written to a culture where you couldn’t decide what your job was going to be!), to be honest, to earn money, to avoid the pride and pitfalls of wealth, to support our families, and to be generous.

There is nothing wrong with having a job I love. There’s nothing wrong with gaining a high-paying, respectable job, or chasing a dream. There’s nothing wrong with finding personal fulfillment, enjoyment, excitement, and inspiration in my job. 

But in the end, I am not my job. And neither is anyone else.



  1. Amen Lisa! Love your blog!

  2. I hope that you find with age that you can bear up under the pressure and the criticism that is sure to come. As your 61-year-old dad, I have endured harsh criticism from strangers who have not even a vague clue of what my life is about. Age will challenge your beliefs and I pray you will remain strong in your convictions. Believe me, it isn't easy.

  3. " .... Keep interested in your career however humble for it is a real fortune in the changing of time....."

    Max Earlman - 1908