A question of being

How do you answer the oft-asked question, "What do you do?"

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Photo: Nico van Diem

The other day, an interaction with an associate set me thinking about the enormous importance we give to work and profession—so much that even our sense of being often comes from what we do. Perhaps we can’t help it. Our society places an undue importance on doing. Did you ever notice how most conversations with strangers start with the question, “So what do you do?” And how do most people typically respond? “I am a doctor”, “I am a writer”, “I am a software engineer”, “I am a healer”, “I'm an actor” or even “I am the CEO of XYZ Corporation”.

Pay attention to the words “I am” in the above responses. It implies that what we are is defined by what we do. That's how weaved we have gotten to our professional identities.

I think there’s a fundamental flaw in such a paradigm—it reverses the natural flow of life. Let's try and understand this with the help of the animal world.

You know that the lion is a powerful beast. Would you say the lion hunts animals, therefore it is powerful? OF course not; the lion is strong intrinsically, and therefore it hunts other animals. The lion is what it is—and what it does flows from its being. Likewise, the fish are not fish because they live in water—they live in water because they are fish. Take this analogy and apply it to anything in nature, and you will observe that in every case, ‘doing’ is the outcome of ‘being’, not the cause.

Did you ever notice how most conversations with strangers start with the question, “So what do you do?”

What's your tag?

Somehow, we humans have got this sequence mixed up. We become identified with the tag of what we do—singer, doctor, actor, CEO—and in the process, lose our sense of being. This kind of identification is the source of much unhappiness. It implies that if, for some reason, you stop doing what you do, you will lose your sense of ‘being’. So you feel stuck, chained or imprisoned by what you do.

Take the case of the vice-president of a multinational corporation, who finds it extremely difficult to leave his job even though he has long stopped enjoying it. All because of the years he has put in—it’s what gives him his sense of identity. He has forgotten that he is not the tag, that there’s much more to him than being the VP of his company.

If you’re struggling with any aspect of your life, it’s a good bet that you’re doing something that is in conflict with your being. Ask yourself if you are doing it out of some sense of obligation or compulsion? Or is it because this is what your label says you do? If so, you’re in the wrong lane.

If you’re struggling with any aspect of your life, it’s a good bet that you’re doing something that is in conflict with your being

Make the shift

To be happy and successful in the absolute sense of the word, you need to set the order right—from “I do, therefore I am” to “I am, therefore I do”. This is not difficult to do. A simple shift can free you from all the limitations you have placed on yourself. And no, you need not stop doing what you are doing. All you need to do is to stop identifying yourself with whatever you do. In other words, just de-tag yourself and and stay with the knowing that you are prior to all doing, prior to your roles and identities.

Your work, your relationships, your success, your bank balance, even the state of your health do not define who you are. They only reflect your decisions, choices and actions. In fact there's no way you can actually define who you are, that's how glorious you are. You are a dynamic human being, changing, growing, evolving everyday. Your identity limits you. When you let go of it, you are free to explore life in all its vividness. Possibilities open up for you the moment you dis-identify yourself from all the labels that you hitherto associated yourself with.

The next time someone puts forth the what-do-you-do question, say, "I live." After all, isn't that what you do best? You love, you breathe, you eat, you cry, you scream, you dance, you plan, you regret, you doubt, you encourage, you sleep, you shower, you delegate, you wonder, you sing, you watch, you talk, you listen, you fear, you believe, you question—you do so much more than just your work. What you really do, then, is live.


A version of this article was first published in the November 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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