At a small dinner party recently, the man seated to my left -- a total stranger to me -- turned and struck up a conversation by asking this question: "And what do you do?"
"I'm an opera singer," I responded, pitching my voice a bit higher than usual and affecting a French accent. "A soprano."
A few minutes earlier I'd heard him asking the same question of a man seated opposite him. And a few minutes before that I listened as he popped the question -- And what do you do? -- to the host's sister. Apparently the answers were not what he wanted to hear; he'd moved on quickly after learning one was a teacher, the other a social worker.
So when he turned to me I was ready.
"An opera singer?" he repeated after me, his voice flushed with excitement and interest, his manner suddenly attentive. Mr. Johnny One-Note had finally found what he was looking for: A Trophy Dinner Partner. Which is to say, someone whose professional resume satisfied his need to connect only with those he viewed as successful and therefore worthy of his attention.
Whenever I get stuck next to this kind of dinner partner, I find myself longing to be at home snacking on Cheez-its and playing Mousey, Mousey, Who's Got the Mousey? with an old washcloth and my cat, Harpo.
Question: Why do some people insist on thinking that a person is just a by-product of what he or she does for a living? That who you are is what you do?
Or vice versa.
But here's the worst news of all: Sometimes the person judging us in this manner is not someone sitting opposite us at a party or at work. It is someone sitting inside us: ourselves.
This need to measure the value of people, including ourselves, through the prism of the workplace is one reason why so many young adults emerge from high school and college in a semi-panicked state about their futures. They've seen the handwriting on the wall and it says: You'd better pick the right career or you will never amount to anything in life.
Unfortunately, there's no postscript that adds: On the other hand, you might think about deriving a sense of self-worth through balancing your life to include, along with individual work, the satisfactions of family and community and a connection to some larger value.
Few would dispute that we live in a very materialistic culture, one which offers rewards for how much money you make or what size house you own or how high you've climbed on the corporate ladder. And not so many rewards for satisfactions found in a life lived out in a somewhat slower lane.
Given such cultural standards -- and don't kid yourself that adolescents don't see the one-upmanship that goes on among adults, including their parents -- is it any wonder that young people often suffer from a lack of self-esteem and direction? Or that they see their future "success" largely in terms of acquiring the trophy house, the trophy job, the trophy husband or wife?
Of course, young people are not the only group who have limited access to the social affirmation that comes with doing something "important."
Women are quite familiar with the experience of being passed over socially because they're not "interesting." (Read: They work at a low-profile job or don't work at all.) For years, generations of women were judged primarily by what their husbands did. Now we have the interesting phenomenon of working women sometimes writing off non-working women as "uninteresting."
Often such "non-working" women are mothers who've made the decision to devote their energies to home and family. And although we pay lip service to the idea that nothing is more important than giving children a good start in a secure home, in subtle ways society downgrades the value of the full-time homemaker.
So, are you what you do? And if what you do is not deemed important by society, are you less valuable than the neurosurgeon, the judge, the university president?
It's your call, of course. Because the deep satisfaction that comes from honest achievement and a task well done lies not in our jobs but in ourselves.
By the way, the man at the dinner party, the one who still thinks I'm an opera singer, turned out to be a dentist.