What Do You Do?

I recently had the opportunity to attend my 20 year high school reunion.  Throughout the night, I heard the same question asked repeatedly.  It is a question you will probably ask or be asked any time you attend a social event where you meet new people or see someone you haven’t seen in years.  What do you do?  Generally when people are asked that question, the standard reply is to simply say “I am a _________ (insert professional title)”, or “I ___________ (insert job description)”.

Is this how you define yourself?
Is this how you define yourself?

This got me thinking.  Why do we choose to answer this question in this way?  We could choose anything to define ourselves.  I am a physical therapist but I am also a father, husband, son, brother, Christian, skier, hiker, rock climber, blogger, teacher, student, etc.).  Why is the social norm to simply say what we do to make money?  Is it because we feel it gives a certain status?  Is it because we spend so much time at our work that this is truly how we first define ourselves?  Is it really the most important or interesting thing about us?  Is this just another societal norm that we follow and have no idea why?

I’m pretty sure this is more interesting.
I’m certain this is more important.

Does any of this even matter?  What in the world does it have to do with personal finance, financial independence and early retirement?  It matters a ton.  Essentially how you think is who and what you are.  When we decided we wanted to pursue financial independence and early retirement we thought it was all about knowing how to invest, knowing how much money you needed to retire, knowing how to manage that money to not end up broke, etc.  Solving those questions are important and at times complex.  However, the technical issues are not what stops 99% of people from following the path to achieving financial independence and building the life they truly want to live.

Most people will never follow our path to early financial independence because they simply don’t try.  Most people become so trapped in the standard way of thinking that they don’t even see this as a possibility, let alone something that is achievable to nearly anyone blessed enough to be born in the United States (and I would assume most other developed western countries if you are a reader in one of those places.)

Why do so many young people find themselves trapped under massive amounts of college loan debt?  Because that’s what people do.  Why do so many low wage earners blindly make the same mistakes over and over like financing cars and getting into credit card debt?  Because that’s what people do.  Why do most high wage earners with prestigious careers spend so much of their money on massive houses, luxury cars and country club memberships?  Because that’s what people do.  It is not the only way to do things!

Why does everyone center their lives around their work?  Why do we all continue to spend 40+ hours every week at our job for 30-50 years when we live in a society that is more productive than it has ever been?  Why do we all blindly nod along in agreement when we see “news” stories or hear politicians tell us how hard it is to make it financially in these times, even as we watch these stories on one of the hundreds of channels on our flat screen, high definition 52″ TV while sitting in our houses which are double the size they were just a generation ago?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written some longer posts giving a lot of practical tips that show you how we built a very high savings rate quickly and we’ve linked to a lot of interesting resources to share some other ideas we have thought were interesting and could be helpful.  Today there are no quick tips.  There are no links.  We’ll keep it short and sweet and ask you to do the work.  This post should give you more questions than answers.

Take a couple of minutes and be introspective.  Think about what defines you.  Think about what you really want out of life.  Is the path you’re on taking you there?  If not, what would it take and why aren’t you working on it?  Remember, as long as you think like everyone else, your results will look pretty much like everyone else’s results.  As long as you define yourself by what you do, you will probably do what everyone else in your situation does.  Think, about it.  It’s pretty important.

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9 comments on What Do You Do?

  1. I also found it interesting that we ask each other what we do. Unfortunately, our response what the hear the answer, is usually negative because (a) I judge your job/profession as being inferior and I lose interest in you (b) I judge you again because your position is much higher than mine and I feel intimidated and so can not develop a relationship. It is rare that you meet someone on your own level, except if you are in a place meant for your peers. Like you say, there is so much more to us than our jobs.

    In one northern European country, they do not ask what one does. They say that it is being nosy and will just bring divisions. People mention their professions if they need to or someone just wants you to know more about them. I found that a very good approach.

    1. It is interesting to hear how other cultures think about these issues. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. We struggle with this question in a big way! One of the reasons we’re so eager to retire early is that we feel like we don’t actually know the answer to what we do without having work and career hanging over us. But we can’t wait to find out! 😉

  3. Another Q for you on this: Have you guys thought about what you’ll answer to this question after you reach FI? Will you actually say “We’re retired!” or “I’m a retiree!”? Just one of those random questions we’ve been asking ourselves lately — will we tell casual acquaintances we’re retired, or will that sound too braggy, or like we’re secretly billionaires? (That last one will certainly NOT be the case!) Maybe we’ll just say that we’re funemployed, or that we do freelance work, or something of the sort? Anyway, curious to know how you think about it.

  4. I struggled with job related identity for a while, but I think in scientific terms all the time, and now happily answer that I am a scientist. Even now that I’m not in the lab. Science is behind a tasty meal, a humming bird flitting around, that gorgeous sunset, the flicker of candle light, the crackle of campfire, that spot on throw at bowling, that well balanced crow pose.:) I am also a daughter, sister, friend, yogi, and goof-ball!

    1. I love it. No need to define or label yourself in any way! Just keep growing, learning and being you.


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