A few years ago I decided to test drive a question when I found myself in a social situation with people I didn’t know. Instead of asking “what do you do?” I asked “what do you do for fun?” And I did this for a time at cocktail parties, meetings, wedding showers – wherever there were new faces and friends to meet.
Some people were startled, and had to really think before they could answer. Fun? Do I actually have any fun in my life after I get through working, looking after the kids, getting in the groceries, and cleaning up after dinner? Rarely, some people simply had no answer – and there was a big, yawning, space of silence while they learned something really important about themselves and I struggled to redeem the awkward moment.
But mostly people would launch into a description of their garden, or their travels, or their secret poetry project. I found out the most amazing things about people! And they usually became quite animated in their responses because they were speaking about something they were passionate about. Someone had just been to a sensory deprivation tank, someone else had taken up woodworking, someone had been taking lessons in hanging from ribbons like the people in cirque du soleil.
And very often the discussion would turn to why I had asked that question and how refreshing it was to talk about and be defined by something other than work.
Some of this work identification is a North American phenomenon – in Europe new acquaintances will want to know about your family lineage. But it is particularly acute amongst lawyers. When we think of our identity: I am a woman, I am a mother…. I am a lawyer is usually pretty high up on the list.
And that in itself is not a bad thing. Several years ago I went to a retirement seminar that my friend was hosting – not because I was intending to retire, but because she needed “bums in the seats”. I remember we were asked: what does work give you besides money? I found that my list was pretty long: intellectual stimulation, social connections, status, new challenges. Her point in running the seminar was to help you think about what you would need to replace when you retire besides the money: will crossword puzzles be an adequate substitute for the intellectual stimulation?