Identity Work

As anyone who has ever spent more than 5 seconds with me probably could have predicted, I hang a lot of my sense of self-worth on my work. And while I don’t always mean what I get paid to do, I certainly do mean that as well. As I once said at a hacker conference panel on taking money from tainted places: “no one could ever pay me enough to not do what needs doing.” As in, while other folk can be happy doing net-neutral (or even net-negative) work as their day jobs, I cannot. I have a complete mental block on it and cannot do it, regardless of how I spend my non-work hours. To each their own – others are able to balance the impact they have in the world in various ways, and I’m honestly a bit envious of them.

That means the jobs I have, I believe in. Whether it was Jigsaw or Geeks Without Bounds or Aspiration or now Truss, I see my “job” as being part of a collective effort to change the world for the better. I don’t leave my work at work, and I don’t like taking vacations. The world is a mess and the only way it changes is through our active effort. No, I will not put my laptop down. (I am actually working on this, to my benefit.)

This also means I can be a mess sometimes, because of work. Because of financial needs, and political systems, and growing pains, my ability to act within or through an organization can be disrupted. Which would be fine, except I have rough time with it. It is, as I like to joke, a direct reflection on my moral character.

So I brought this challenge to my amazing therapist. They asked me great questions about how I interact and perceive needs, and my identity in regards to (and beyond) work. But it still didn’t land.

In thinking about who I would be without connection to others or beyond the actions I take, I realized how much I ascribe to the Buddhist idea of just being a collection of molecules brought together in this moment. That life is meaningless but that we give it meaning. And that meaning is created through action and connections. So to try to describe an identity outside of connection and action is impossible for me to do.

What does this mean about my relationship to work?

A great conversation came up in the #kids channel at Truss a bit ago, about how people explain to their kids why they go away all day. And folk fell pretty squarely into two camps: “everyone has a job (including you),” and “capitalism is a system we exist in.” And I realized in this conversation about managing 4 year olds that I have grown up in an environment which says “everyone has a job,” but that the “we have to survive in capitalism” narrative far better aligns with how I actually view the world. There is a difference between responsibility to a system (the former), and responsibility to the people within that system (the latter).

How do y’all think about responsibility and creating meaning, and how it does or doesn’t overlap with your work?

PS, aside on how the American Dream / Work Ethic is actually protestantism and a plug for this great piece from back in the day from Quinn.