You are not what you do.

May 18, 2011 by

You are not what you do.

In my twenties I somehow convinced myself that life would always get better. I mean, isn’t that how it should be? You learn, you grow, you make more money. There will be obstacles, but won’t retirement make everything seem worth it?

Needless to say, the realization that life appears to only get more difficult is a sobering one.

I’m a work-aholic and I’ve always had jobs that I love. It’s easy to see why my whole life has been wrapped up in what I do. I had even resigned myself to believing that there was no room for a partner in my life; I was married to my work, and that was just fine. When the job I currently have became available, it was easy to move to a new city for it. No partner, just me.

But two years into the job, I met someone, and thankfully not through my work. And only two years into our relationship we seem to be in it for the long haul. I can’t imagine my life without him. That being the case, the work-aholic in me is…more sober than he used to be, but only because of the wonderful distraction of my relationship. The realization of this has caused something that a colleague said to me several years ago to finally resonate:

“Watch out! You are not what you do. What you do is not who you are.”

At the time, I thought I understood this, but I didn’t think I would ever really need to embrace it. But having this relationship…and suddenly discovering that I have a love for plants, that I want to improve my cooking skills…has made me take this statement more seriously.

One Happy FaceOddly enough, it became the most clear on some recent trips to the grocery store. There’s a chain of stores in the Southeast that has been around for half a century, and in recent years they have begun building super stores, which are amped-up versions of the regular chain with better prepared food, more wine choices, a cheesemonger on duty every day, and people who insist on helping you to your car (they don’t even have cart returns in the parking lot). The newest store, the first to be built outside the company’s home state, just opened a mile from me a few weeks ago. I’ve been there three times and I have made some powerful observations.

Moments after I walked in the first time, I had an emotional reaction. Not because it was a fancy new store, or because I finally found an alternative to the less desirable store I frequented, but because of the energy of the people who worked there. There was such joy emanating from the workers. They were all so happy to be there, from the elated managers to the young men that took my food out of the cart for me and put it on the belt!

After a conversation with the bread lady, I wondered why she didn’t have her own cooking show. The cheesemonger took time to write down a personal recipe for me while I shopped. He even remembered my name the next time I visited. This particular store even has an online shopping service where you just drive up and they hand you everything you’ve ordered online. As convenient as that sounds, I don’t think I’ll ever use it. Why rob myself of the experience of shopping in a place that changes the way I think about food — and the people who help me find it?

Each time I’ve visited, I’ve moved through this wonderful world of fine produce, prepared food, and great wine, stopping to tell nearly every employee how grateful I am that they are there. Suddenly I’ve been able to see myself actually enjoying a kind of job that I, for most of my life, thought I’d never be interested in. Suddenly, I “got it.”

This realization has helped bring my colleague’s words into perspective: We really are not what we do; we are who we are. It makes sense that money and success will not buy happiness, but how many of us really know this at the core of our being? What if you learned today that you would have to leave a beloved career and never be able to return to it? How would you react if you found yourself working in a grocery store after having a high-level CEO position? How would it change you? Would it change you at all or would it simply bring your real self to the surface?

Kevin Robison Conducting The Atlanta Gay Men's ChorusMany days of the week, the challenges of my own job, the frustrations and the pressure that comes with my kind of work, have me wondering why I continue to do it. I’m still processing this, but I think it’s time to ask myself, “How can I be plugged-in to my job in a different way – a way that does not define me?”

Taking the temperature of my relationship with my job is not the same as questioning who I am. I’m supposed to be exactly where I am today, doing exactly what I’m doing. That may change at any moment, but I feel infinitely more prepared should that change happen.

Thoughts of making changes in our lives doesn’t mean we’re ready to make them, no matter how persistent they may seem. But it does mean we’re listening and that’s what matters most.

Kevin Robison is Artistic Director of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus