Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

In the modern world, our job titles tend to be the centerpiece of our identities. When you meet someone new at a social gathering, the first piece of information that they will likely disclose to the question ‘what do you do?’ is the details of your chosen profession.

Your answer to this question will dictate how you will be perceived by others.

If you tell your new acquaintance that you have a senior or executive level position at a high performing business, you will be met with praise and admiration. You are someone who went to elite universities, wears trendy suits, sleeps in posh hotels and works late hours – the epitome of a success story. People will flock towards you with great interest and enthusiasm. You are seen to have high status, and in their eyes, your efforts should be celebrated.

On the other hand, if you tell this new acquaintance that you are a blue-collar worker in a low to medium paying career, getting dirty and working with your hands, chances are that you’ll be met with disinterested emotionless faces. People may be much less enthusiastic to learn about the specifics and nuances of your life.

Leonardo Dicaprio from the The Wolf of Wall Street

What I want to explore in this article is to assess why we place so much of our self-worth on a single piece of information – our job titles. Yes, I agree that ‘making it to the top’ of the career ladder is a great achievement. Work can also provide a sense of price and source of meaning.

However, I think that our careers should not subsume one’s whole identity.

What about one’s hobbies, intellectual pursuits or more importantly one’s character. There surely matter – don’t they?

You Are Not Your Job

Objectification is when our humanity and uniqueness is reduced down to a single characteristic or trait. In a hyper-efficient productivity driven society, the complexity of intricacies of our individuality can often be limited to our role in the economic system. This can happen on both sides of the employment relationship. Namely, when someone views an employer or employee as an instrument or tool to achieve their desired economic objectives.

The issue with this type of mindset is that it can lead to stress, burnout and a dissatisfaction in life. We become confined to a singular identity. Friendships or familial relationships are neglected as we become constricted by our work.

We try to distract ourselves from an existential void that cannot be filled by possessions or materialist notions of success.

Status Anxiety

It is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others. The advent of digital technologies have given us many more ways to judge ourselves against our peers. Browsing our smartphones, we may get envious of the seemingly perfect lives that our friends from high school have crafted. Our self-worth and self-esteem take a hit when we come to the belief that they are higher on the imaginary ladder of success than we are.

The philosopher Alain de Botton coined the term Status Anxiety to describe the fear of being labelled as ‘unsuccessful’ by others or looked down upon. He claims that those who don’t attain our societies conception of success are anxious with the fear that they’ll be judged by others with a lack of dignity or respect. They see themselves as failures who’ve lost in the competitive game of the free market.

But why conform to the expectations of others.

Why not craft your own path?

Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Redefining Success

There are at least two problems with modern society’s proclivity towards defining success in merely economic terms.

The first is that it negatively impacts one’s physical and mental health. If one finds meaning and purpose only through work, they are then inclined to work unreasonably long hours and make unrealistic sacrifices for their jobs. In a strange reversal of ideals, working late hours and ‘burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion’ has become to be seen as a badge of honour. Busyness is now a status symbol, something that high achievers and self-help gurus boast about on their social media accounts. While this may seem honourable, we all have productivity thresholds. That is, there will come a point when working more hours will lead to less productivity. You will make more mistakes. Remember we are humans, not machines.

The second issue with the mainstream view of status and accomplishment is that it restricts the freedom of the individual. People should have the autonomy to define what success means for them. Rather than merely accepting the social expectations placed on you by others, we can always make the decision about what goals, values and ambitions we would like to achieve.

Perhaps what is most important to us is our religious or spiritual practice, family life, a passion project or our work dedicated to a social cause that we deeply care about. The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.

Breaking Free

You are not your job. You’re not how much much you have in your bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

 Chuck Palahniuk , Fight Club

External things don’t define a person. Most likely, you won’t be remembered by your relative status compared to others or the contents of your CV. In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.

People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.  

This article was originally posted on my personal blog

Source image Pexels Free Photos

11 thoughts on “Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

  1. I read “status anxiety” when it came out and it really helped me to understand where it came from for me and helped to dissipate the anger I’d felt as a working-class dude who struggled to survive in this circus casino economy in the U.S. I learned it’s not so much the existence of class disparities that disturbs our happiness, but also our proximity to it. Now with social networking that proximity has been reduced to the distance from our “smart” phones.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Modern societies place a high value of status on your job, but in my humble opinion, meaning in life is rarely found in your day job (in some cases it may be). Moreover, in my view, it is found in the relationships with others, family friends, and making a positive contribution to your community.

  2. Thank you for this blog post. I have been struggling with this idea lately. You crystallized this idea of I need to worry about who I am not what I am.

  3. A thought provoking post.
    I like, “In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.”
    I agree. We will be remembered for qualities like good manners, empathy, and generosity and not for our status alone.
    I worked as an elementary school teacher. I am extremely proud of my labor of love, (I refuse to call it my profession). And when talking about what I do/did, I always hold/held my head high among highly qualified, high-ranking people or status-conscious people.

  4. I appreciate this post very much. I suffer a lot from this type of anxiety. I have a couple of degrees, yet work in a very low level job. I worry about what people think and often feel compelled to explain and excuse myself.

  5. “ People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.”…
    Yes, I agree.

    Sadly I don’t know ( as in really know ) anyone who doesn’t introduce themselves by ‘what they do’. If it’s not their actual employment it’s an interest or hobby at which they excel and have reached high positions.

    1. Coming from a lowly position myself (blue-collar working-class), I find that what a person does when they’re not working to be very telling. People might find it to be a bit intrusive in polite conversation, but I’m always interested in what “moves“ them and if they’re able to express that. If they’re not able to express that, then that is telling as well.

  6. Excellent post. If there’s any upside to this horrible pandemic, it’s that people seem to be rethinking the role of work in their lives and refusing to go back to the status quo you describe. I hope that trend holds.

    1. Perhaps, even as we quickly transition to pre-pandemic times, we got a short glimpse of the possibilities for different, slower and more intentional lifestyles.

  7. Over the last few months I was offered the opportunity to get a promotion, but the worksite was far away. Some were 10 extra miles longer and others were double the commute I had at the time. Finally I went forward with an opportunity with a different employer — it has the same pay and same benefits as my former employee — but it was half of my commute which allows me more time for my hobbies. Also my now-supervisor gave me a clear path of what the opportunities for growth look for me rather feeling like a cog in the machine.

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