So.... what do YOU do???

I have a confession to make. I am embarrassing. The outcast. The odd-one that you try to circle around at a party. Why? Because:

I do not have a job.

Not at the moment, that is. I am wrapping up my PhD thesis which means that I am, in fact, working. Every day. All day. I live behind my computer, typing away every day. But my contract ended, and I am officially unemployed.
This contradiction is a phase most of us PhD students go through. We spend all our contract time (read: paid time) pipetting away in the lab and write up the whole thing after the contract has ended. For one reason or another, the research institutes employing us seem to think that writing should be seen as a hobby to us, not a part of the job. This treatment is a whole different issue to be discussed and I hope that one day I may be in a situation where I will have the power to go against these strange policies. But this is not the topic of this post.

This post is about a strange phenomenon I discovered since I have been "unemployed". Socializing becomes a minefield. Now it is funny that this only occured to me now that I am in my mid 30's, but to be honest, I have never been unemployed. Until now, I always had the next step sorted out before the old job ended. There may have been a couple of weeks between jobs, but I would use these breaks to move city towards my next job. After twelve years on the job market, this is the first time I do not know what is coming. I am applying, sure. But my training is so specialized that the options out there are limited. Very limited. What this means is that it will take time to find something new.

Now of course this is not the first time I have encountered unemployment. Some of my closest friends had struggled to find a job for years. I listened to their stories, I saw their pain. And it was back then when one of them told me about the social minefield first. But I never experienced it myself until now. Now I get it. And it makes my wander what kind of society we have become.

Happy and content on a hiking holiday in Scotland. In the middle of the highlands, up on Cairn Gorm mountain, your current occupation is the last thing you wander about at this moment...

One more picture from that holiday and one of my favourite snapshots of the mister. Wouldn't you want to share this moment with others rather than tell them about your five year career plan?

To explain. Whenever I get to meet with people, it seems that there are only two ways to start a conversation.
If I am among people I do not know, they will typically ask: So, what are you doing? Telling them you are unemployed leads to an awkward vibe within the group and completely puts the person asking the question out of balance.

If I am around peers I know, the question will be rephrased to: So, how is the application process going? Any new job already? If you then tell the truth, that no, you so far only received rejections, two scenarios happen. They do not know how to proceed with the conversation and try to escape the situation asap. Or: They start analyzing why it may be that I still have not found anything and trying to "fix the problem".

So here is the thing. When did we start defining ourselves - and others - through our jobs? Why is it so important to figure out what another person does for a living?

Happy, a couple of years ago. Hiking again. This time in Iceland.

Do we need to validate our own success by comparing our achievements with those of others? What if we find out we are the least successful in the room then? Will we sign in for business school the next day to make sure we can live up to the standard of our peers?
Or do we evaluate our conversation partners? Is the person I am currently talking to worth the effort? Is he/she smart enough to be worth my time?

Who are we to judge who is successful and who is not? And who are we to feel better or smarter or more successful when comparing ourselves to others? Who decides what success means? Earning millions may be success for one, but does that necessarily mean the same for all of us? Taking time of to be a full-time parent may be the biggest success for the next person and who am I to tell that person that this is not enough?

Corporate me. Why would this be so much more interesting to talk about then the upper two pictures? Could you even tell what my job is from this snapshot? No! Now look back at the other pictures above. Wouldn't you be curious to know more about how I ended up there, how the hike was, what I did before and after the picture was taken... See, my point exactly!

I advocate a change of this unhealthy behaviour and I hope others will join me. Next time someone enquires about your current occupation or career objectives, stop them! Stop them right there!
I am not sure yet if I want to confront them and ask whether this is really the only question they could come up with when meeting me. Maybe I will just change the topic. I may go ahead and tell them that what is more important is that I recently found a new hobby - gardening. Or that I am planning this amazing hike next year. Let's start talking about the things that make us happy. Our hobbies. The music we listen to, movies we saw, theater plays we went to, books we read. Let's enquire people about the area they live in and what one can explore there.

Let's try to actually get to know our conversation partner before measuring their success on a totally subjective scale in the back of our heads. We may just find ourselves surprised by what a person has to offer.