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August 19, 2014

So, what do you do?

New Acquaintance: “Hi, I’m Bob. Pleased to meet you. What do you do?”

You: “I’m a public servant/executive/lawyer/manager. What about you?”

New Acquaintance: “I’m a plumber.”

It’s a question we ask all the time, and the question of what somebody ‘does’ is charged with evaluative undertones. While there are a range of possible answers, the expected response is somebody’s paid employment or profession. The implied question is “What do you do to earn money?” We focus on paid work, though other responses would be equally valid – e.g., “I build model rockets” or “I’m a father of triplets.”

We could just as easily ask, “What are you passionate about?” though the likely answer is a blank stare, combined with an honest “I don’t really know.”

Our jobs can define us, and this can be dangerous. I first learned this a few years ago while on secondment to the National Managers’ Community (NMC). I supported managers in a period of downsizing stemming from the 2012 federal budget. For many, an implicit expectation of employment in the public service was (relative) job stability. Losing this stability, or even the threat of instability, was deeply unsettling. When you define yourself by your job, the threat of losing your job is stressful. Beyond the practical loss of income, there is a deeper loss of identity.

During this time the CBC reported that a lawyer at Justice Canada had committed suicide. He had been struggling with depression combined with the added stress of losing his job (or keeping it at the expense of a colleague). This dedicated public servant tragically ended his own life. According to his widow:

I guess in the end, the mental illness took over, and his whole world became wrapped up in what he did for a living.

What can we take away from this tragedy? It is all too easy to get caught up in a job and start living to work rather than working to live.

On June 28, 2012, I received a notice that my job was affected – GovSpeak for “might be laid off”. The mere possibility that I might lose my job caused me to rethink assumptions I had made about the public service, and about myself as a public servant.

I had naïvely expected that if I worked hard and did my job well, I’d be rewarded with stable employment for life. I had defined myself as “a public servant” and the thought of being booted out of the civil service threatened my self-worth and self-esteem, creating unease and a feeling of precariousness.

In the end, I didn’t lose my job. After six months of uncertainty, I received a letter advising me that the ‘affected status’ was rescinded. In addition, none of my immediate co-workers were laid off. This was, of course, the best possible outcome. I thought, “Thank God it all turned out okay” but then wondered, “What about next time?”

The stress left lasting impacts. Among other things, I realized that I should never let a job become my sole – or even my primary – source of meaning and purpose. I now choose to define myself by my skills and passions rather than whatever job I’m occupying. I’m a great husband and father. I’m a gifted public speaker and teacher. I love to help people learn new things.

Paradoxically, this reframing process has caused me to become a better employee. I worry less about the stability of my job and focus on how I can contribute to the organization, while simultaneously building my repertoire of skills. I even used the stress of downsizing to learn more about change management, layoffs, and building organizational resiliency – topics I wouldn’t have otherwise known much about.

Work is a necessary part of life – it provides income for basic necessities and the occasional luxury. It can help provide us with meaning and relevance in a world of complexity. The danger lurks when it becomes the only source of meaning and relevance.

Relationships, health, and personal growth are all more reliable sources of pride and accomplishment. These are best discovered by having an honest conversation with yourself about your passions.

So, what are your strengths? What are your passions? Are you following them at your job or elsewhere? When somebody asks “What are you passionate about?”, do you have something to offer other than a blank stare?


George Wenzel George Wenzel was a journeyman public servant and is now working at a not-for-profit – pursuing his passions in what will be his fifth career. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

About this author

George Wenzel

George Wenzel is a journeyman public servant. He has worked delivering programs and in internal services, most recently in Human Resources. His mission has been to improve service to Canadians by improving frontline management. You can find him online at about.me/georgewenzel, govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

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