"What do you do?" It's one of the first ice breaker questions asked. The answer will often determine whether or not the person to whom you are speaking deems you worthy of continued conversation. It's an open secret, something we'd never admit to, but we perpetuate daily. Just ask any stay-at-home-mom.
"I'm an executive assistant," say with a smile.
"Oh." Disinterest crosses his face. "That's like a secretary, right?" I can see his perception of my IQ plummet.
"Yes," I reply without losing my smile. The conversation continues as he, an engineer, tries to find common ground for a conversation. I ask him about his job and watch with no small sense of humor as he appears surprised I have a rudimentary knowledge of his field. Later, I'm told by a mutual friend, he was surprised I was "just" a secretary.
"What do you do?" The question arises again.
"I'm a writer," I reply, wondering if the reaction will be different.
"Really? What have you written?" The man is skeptical. After all, in this day of blogging, isn't everyone a writer?
"I write for an online magazine a few times a week, am an assistant editor for a literary group, and have published three short stories, but I'm working on my novel at the moment."
I see his eyes widen. "Where can I find your books?" The skeptic is still there.
"Amazon. I can send you a link."
He smiles, and starts to ask me about my writing. I'm happy to oblige. Later I will hear that I'm "an intriguing author type". I wonder, trying not to laugh, if he can talk me up to the engineer.
What we do, in our society, is often considered synonymous with who we are. Minds sort and categorize jobs and positions as worthy or not based on, typically, the paycheck. We value money above all, no matter how often we claim otherwise. It makes sense then that so many parents spend years grooming their children to become doctors, lawyers, professors, analysts – positions of respect, positions of money.
I know first graders learning Latin and music theory. I know second graders taking Mandarin classes on top of their regular school day. I know children who are pushed to, at all costs, succeed.
But what does that success look like?
Does it look like children with ulcers, families without time to learn each other, mothers beating themselves up because they didn't get their child into the school of choice? Does it look like families going into debt for extra classes, that extra thing that will push their child ahead of his or her peers?
It all confuses me. Success, in my eyes, looks like happiness. I can honestly say my children can be trash collectors, starving writers, doctors, florists, flight attendants, or a secretary in a cubical and I will be completely happy and proud of them – as long as they work hard and above all, are happy themselves. I know janitors who are Poet Laureates and doctors who worry about an early heart attack from stress. To be fair, I also know doctors who are fulfilled and happy and janitors who are miserable. The point is not to be defined by the job we have but rather what we do with our lives.
When are we going to take a look in the mirror and recognize the values we hold as a society are counterproductive to true happiness? Maybe when we do, we might see the small versions of ourselves standing beside us and turn to them and say, "Let's cancel violin, horseback riding, and soccer and instead be children."