University of Illinois professor, Archie Green, spent a lifetime studying the modern folklore of work. He listened to the songs, recited the poems and read the novels that related to labor. What did he conclude is our fundamental belief about work?
“I work, therefore I am.”
It sounds ludicrous, as if we were merely a species of workaholics. But Green was more right than we know. Work shapes us in surprisingly incisive ways.
Consider how we get to know new acquaintances. “What do you do?” is often our first inquiry. It’s not just small talk. We view and treat a drummer starkly differently than a dentist — even if their physiques, hometowns, attires, personalities and everything else about them are identical. Our image of someone we meet at a bar or on a play date is colored by whatever toil they did earlier.
Indeed, our ancestors thought work was central enough to personal identity to name each other by it. The most common surname in the English-speaking world, Smith, refers to blacksmithing and metalsmithing. If you’re an Archer, Brewer, Chamberlain, Fisher, Fletcher, Harper, Mason, Miller or Turner, your every signature is an ode to the labor of an ancestor. This naming convention is not just a quirk of work-obsessed Anglo-Saxons. The Chinese surname Zhang means bowmaker and the Indian name Gandhi means perfume seller. Today our surnames are set. Yet we add “Senator,” “General” and “Doctor” to the front of names. Similarly, lawyers adorn the back end of their names with “Esq” accountants with “CPA” and project managers with “PMP.” We continue to consider profession integral to the ultimate symbol of who we are: our names.
In fact, jobs so heavily influence our sense of self that losing them often precipitates a personal crisis beyond what the associated financial hardship can explain. Unemployment doubles the likelihood of psychological problems and suicide largely because, as Green stated, it makes our existence less compelling. Without work, our sense of self collapses, or at least sags. Bad work, of course, can be equally harmful as no work. And this is where many of us find ourselves.
Whether we are aware of it or not, the time we spend working defines us like the muffin tin shapes the muffin. Partially, but markedly. This means our employers decide — to a large extent — who we are. Sadly, most employers consider us interchangeable units that complete profit-maximizing tasks no one but distant shareholders care about. Our work is meaningless, so we feel valueless. Week after week, we bump up against the hard edges of the workplace and scrape our souls. What if there was a way to reshape your job, the life equivalent of the muffin tin, so that your labor — and, thus, you — mattered?
Job purposing, or the practice of modifying your job to make a social impact, allows you to sculpt your work into a form befitting the great spirit that you are. It’s not only possible, but many of the happiest workers are also already doing it. For ideas on how to get started, see prior post.
 Archie Green, Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
 Paul Klaus and Klaus Moser, “Unemployment Impairs Mental Health: Meta-Analyses,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 74, no. 3 (June 2009).
 Tony A. Blakely, Sunny C. D. Collings, and Joe B. atkinson, “Unemployment and Suicide. Evidence for a Causal Association?”Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health 57, (2003):594-600.
And yet — we’re much more than the work we do. We’re human beings not human doings.
Hi Bea, I met you in 2010 at Georgetown’s Nonorofit Executive Management program.
Working in a college you can feel overwhelmed with the meetings, procedures, reports, policies and red tape you must do everyday. Reflecting on your blog I discovered that serving the community makes me really happy. This is aligned with my personal mission of bringing hope and joy to all, So without knowing it I have found the purpose of my job. Thanks for helping me make this distinction!
Happy to hear that Maria!