Monday, August 11, 2008

Vocation and Identity

I've met a couple of yoga teachers who, via much patience and resourcefulness, have coaxed their bodies to do remarkable things...but who turn helpless and anguished when facing impediments in their daily lives. They cannot apply what they've learned outside the milieu in which they've learned it.

I know an investor who, like all great investors, excels at seeing clearly through the emotion of the moment to find a rational course. Such detachment can only result from years of determined effort to cooly navigate clouds of anxiety and exuberance. Yet in his personal life, this fellow is capable of raging uncontrollably at minor setbacks, losing in the subsequent drama all ability to efficiently problem-solve.

I once drove cross-country with a film director who I respected for the penetrating visual awareness he demonstrated in his movies. Yet as we'd pass beautiful landscapes, he'd usually be occupied - shouting into his cell phone or trying to roll a cigarette or otherwise failing to notice. And when we discussed interesting encounters we'd had en route, it was clear that he'd failed to register anything beyond the most superficial level. Without camera and script, the director viewed the world as a drab la-di-da.

Of course, those who make a habit of applying professional wisdom to their personal lives can seem eccentric. A dentist who pays conspicuous attention to her mailman's teeth, a dancer who sizes up the body mechanics of a relative, or a restaurant critic perpetually chatting up strangers about their favorite haunts all seem downright obsessive. We feel obliged to try to view the world through more than just the single lens at hand. And, lord knows, we want to leave all that
work stuff behind when we're not working!

Once upon a time, we 
were our jobs. Accountants looked and acted like accountants, and tended to be conservative in personal affairs. Bookstore managers were erudite, bartenders were chatty, and guitarists never wore watches. You were defined by what you did, you acted and looked the part, and thus you added your specialized hue to the social rainbow. Your painstakingly polished lens served you well.

No more. Remember "
What Do People Do Each Day", the great kid's book by Richard Scarry? Published in 1968, the book's quaint depictions of the working world - with everyone exuberantly playing their roles and constituting their parts in a seamless whole - seem downright archaic. These days, career is nothing more than your (grimace!) day job. It's not who you are! Your banker may sky dive, and your tax specialist may be a compulsive shopaholic. Most of us are entirely repelled by the very notion of career as self-image. It's no wonder we spurn those skills and functions we've cultivated as we've gone about doing what we do!

Is it a question of expanded boundaries of freedom and individuality? By keeping a squalid office and littering his speech with profanity, is an accountant declaring his staunch defiance to fitting a mold? Is the sexpot librarian, with the slightly racy dress, making a statement of individuality? I don't think so. They've just chosen to personify images from pop culture, rather than images of vocation. The skydiving banker is, consciously or not, modeling himself on someone he saw in a movie once...rather than modeling himself on his vocational mentors. The librarian might be playing out her identification with Christine Aguilera. Only by emulating Christine Aguilera can the librarian feel that she's expressing who she
really is. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm all for individual those rare instances where someone has something individual to express. But much is lost when we swap vocational personas for pop cultural personas. The Christine Aguilera image, spicy though it may be, entails very little seasoning. By identifying with what we do all day, we stand a better chance of fully integrating our hardest-learned lessons.

Not everyone pursues a pop culture self-image in lieu of a vocational self-image. Many drop adult identity entirely when they leave work, reverting to immature, larva-like proto-selves. They resist fully inhabiting their career roles, certain they're truly much more than 
that, but, lacking courage to actually change or grow - or at very least to fully identify with whatever, for better or worse, they devote their lives to doing - they settle into foggy slurries of restive consumption and dazed ennui. They cling dreamily to outdated notions of who they'd once imagined they'd turn out to be, overlooking the hard-won value in who they've actually become.

Update: Maybe we ought to blame the waiters. Once upon a time, waitering was a career, and waiters performed their jobs with pride. As that notion disintegrated, it triggered a shattering of the occupational food chain, until, presently, even the most distinguished professionals feel as as non-personified by their career position as any waiter.

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