Friday, August 6, 2010

Does your job impress strangers?

Time to read this post: 3 minutes.

If you go out in London on a Friday night and chat to a bunch of twenty-somethings, there are two questions that you needed to have good answers to: ‘where do you live?’ and secondly ‘where did you go to school?’. It is delightful to see that the class-system is alive and well. In New York it is a similar question though a little more veiled: ‘what do you do?’ Or put another way “in two sentences or less please justify why I should bother continuing this conversation with you?” If you don’t have a quick, amusing yet intriguing answer then you will see it in their eyes. Unfortunately “I’m an accountant” just won’t get you invited back for a late night coffee. Social status is not just important when you are a teenager. We crave it all our lives.

When I was at university the highly prestigious jobs seemed to be in Strategy Consulting and investment banking. These days it’s all about hedge funds, web 4.0 and non-profit-venture-capital-social-network-media-entrepreneurism.

Actually that’s not quite true. A Harris Poll last year found the most prestigious occupations to be firefighters (62% said it is a very prestigious profession) closely followed by scientists, doctors, nurses & teachers. At the bottom end of the scale are Real estate agents, Actors, Stock Brokers and our poor friends the Accountants.

This Mitchell & Webb video says it best (a good 2 minutes of your life I assure you):

Like in the video, should we really be pursuing a part-time human rights law degree or is it OK to moan about a job in our metaphorical ice-cream factory. Surely we shouldn’t care what other people think about us? Of course we shouldn’t, but of course I do. Our career and jobs become an integral part of our identity. Researchers have uncovered “a significant and positive relationship between occupational prestige and happiness”. Or put another way “people love boring other people about their work”. When you think about it this makes sense. We know that on the flip side: unemployment hits people really hard. People often sink lower and take longer to recover after losing a job than when their spouse dies.

So should we conclude that we should all chase after the latest cool jobs? Of course not: but this is where we tend to make a mistake. There’s a profound difference between what you actually do and the story that you tell about it. When asked “what do you do?” we feel vulnerable. But there are other tactics we can adopt, I always pretend that they have asked me “What exciting things are you planning to do?” and I tell them about amazing companies I might one day set up or difficult questions that I’m grappling with. Strangers instantly clutch onto one of my outlandish ambitions and we then often have an interesting conversation while swigging Brooklyn beers. My responses include statements like: “well my wife and are thinking about going to live in India…” or “I’m considering starting up a online company that delivers happiness at work…” These responses are grounded in truth but also reflect my aspirations – and so no-one needs to hear about my mundane day to day existence. Is this just an avoidance tactic? Probably. But it makes for a better Friday night out.

Tough questions

1. What is your best response to the question “What do you do?”

2. How much of your identity is tied up in your firm, your colleagues or your