This is very common – the first question you tend to get asked when you meet someone at a party or in a social gathering and they will ask you – “So what do you do?” And according to how impressive your answer is, people are either keen to get to know you better, or swiftly leave you behind by the nuts. We are anxious because we live in a world of snobs, people who take a tiny part of us – our professional identities – and use these to come to a complete verdict about how valuable we are as humans.
The opposite of a snob is your mother. She doesn’t care about your status; she cares about your soul. Yet most people aren’t our mothers – and that’s why we worry so much about judgement and humiliation.
It’s said that we live in materialistic times. But it’s more poignant than that. We live in times where emotional rewards have been pegged to the acquisition of material things like big car, big house, expensive mobile, expensive shoes, bags, watches etc. What people want when they go after money, big jobs or fancy cars is rarely these things in themselves, so much as the attention and respect – if you like “the love” – that are given to those who have them. Next time you see a guy driving by in a Ferrari don’t think it is someone unusually greedy; think it is someone with particularly intense vulnerability and need for love.
We are also anxious because we are constantly told we could become anything in our life and we hear it from our earliest day. It should be great that there is so much opportunity in a modern world. But what if we fail in such a world – what if you don’t manage to get to the top when there was said to be every chance?
The self-help shelves of bookstores are filled with two kinds of books that capture the modern anxious condition. The first have titles like – ‘How to make it big in 15 minutes’ and ‘Be an overnight millionaire’. The second have titles like: ‘How to cope with low self-esteem’. The two genres are related. A society that tells people they could have everything, but we are in fact only a tiny minority can, will end up with a lot of dissatisfaction and grief.
There is a related problem: our societies are – to a large extent – deemed to be “fair”. Back in the olden days, you knew the system was rigged. It wasn’t your fault if you were a peasant and not to your credit if you were the lord. But now we are told our societies are meritocracies, places where rewards go to those who really merit them; the hardworking cleaver among us. It sounds lovely – but there is a nasty sting in this tale. If you really believe in a society where those at the top deserve to get there, that has to mean those at the bottom deserve to be there too. Meritocracies make poverty seem not just unpleasant, but also somehow deserved.
In medieval England, people used to call the poor ‘unfortunates’: literally, people who had not been blessed by the God or Goddess of fortune. Nowadays especially in the US where meritocracy is big, they call them – rather tellingly – ‘losers’.
We scarcely believe in ‘luck’ nowadays as something that explains where we end up. No one will believe you if you say you are fired because of ‘bad luck’. Your professional position has become the central verdict on your character. No wonder suicide rate rise exponentially the moment a society joins the so-called ‘modern world’.
So the question is – how can we cope with this modern world? First off, by refusing to believe that any society really ever can be meritocratic: luck or accident continue to determine a critical share of where people end up in the hierarchy. Treat no one – not least yourself – as though they entirely deserve to be where they are. Secondly, make up your own definition of success instead of uncritically leaning on societies. There are so many ways to succeed, and many of them have nothing to do with status as it is currently defined within the value system of industrial capitalism. Those who succeed at making money rarely succeed at empathy or family life. Thirdly, and the most importantly, we should refuse to let our outer achievements define our sense of self entirely. There remain so many vital sides of us that will never appear on our business card, that do not stand a chance of being captured by that maddeningly blunt and unimaginative question – ‘So What Do You Do?’
I am a …
By – Nijhum Sarkar