What is it that you do?

I was recently asked this question. I knew the speaker was inquiring about my line of work. However, this question – one which I hear quite often – makes huge assumptions about our identities. I believe it suggests, even implies, we are what we do. It assumes we identify most with our job. More than the pastimes we like, or our taste of music, we are our jobs. I’ve lived in two other countries and I think that this type of question is specific to English and likely America. Our identities in America are more tightly connected to our jobs than in other cultures.

I do not like this question. I don’t like this assumed identity.

If we live in a culture that so heavily associates identity and occupation, then how do we create the life we want?

Success is having the life you want to have.

I heard this definition of success this week and it resonated strongly with me. When people discuss what they want to do with their lives – whether the elementary prompt “what I want to be when I grow up”, or the adult’s “what do you do” – they discredit the complexity of life and the relationship between the individual and their source of income.

It is within this perspective that a definition of success that includes, in fact focuses on, the desired life is so refreshing. It is more than refreshing, it is inspiring.

The response to “what do you want to do” is nearly always a profession: “I want to be a doctor.” I reject this narrative.

I want us to be asking “what kind of life do you want to have?” This question leads us to deeper insights about who we are and what our priorities are. Understanding these questions provides insight on whether our jobs match this life.

If we accept this definition, then success is only achievable if we know what kind of life we want.

Technology and Startups

So what do we get if we apply this paradigm of success to startups, and to programmers in particular. We get something really helpful, actually. Maybe you love working on unsolved problems. Maybe you want to be able to work from home. Maybe you want to have time to pursue art. Maybe you want to spend more time with your kids. Maybe you want to pay off your debt. Maybe you want to have financial stability.

We begin to see past the idea of the job. Maybe you like the idea of working someplace, but in reality it doesn’t offer the things you really want in life. It is much easier to take steps in the direction of success if you know what you want.

My biggest criticism of startups is along these lines. I think some people in the startup community like the idea of a startup much more than the thing itself. Either they like the idea of starting their own company, or working at a startup. However it is the idea, the sexiness of acquisitions and media that attracts them.

If we fail to look beyond the idea, if we are unable to understand what it is about a startup that gives us the life we want to have, we will never be successful.

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