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  • Writer's pictureMariana Carvalho

The American identity “What do you do for a living?” and its work-centric culture

In the United States, “What do you do for a living?” is often one of the first questions in a conversation, a way to break the ice and get to know someone. This simple and casual question also reveals a deeper truth about the work-centric culture that permeates American society.

From an early age, individuals are instilled with the idea that one’s identity and worth are closely tied to one's diploma, profession, and certifications. This work-centric mindset has both positive and negative implications, shaping the American identity in profound ways.

From an early age, the idea that one’s identity and worth are closely tied to their profession are engraved in individuals’ minds.

The roots of America’s work-centric culture can be traced back to the ideals of the American Dream, which promises upward mobility and success through hard work and determination.

This dream, fueled by the Protestant work ethic, has ingrained the belief that one’s social and economic status is a direct result of their labor. Work is then perceived not merely as a means to an end but as a defining aspect of an individual’s character and value. The emphasis on hard work and dedication has undoubtedly contributed to America’s economic success. The country has thrived on innovation, entrepreneurship, and a strong work ethic, fostering an environment where individuals are relentlessly motivated to pursue their goals.

The sense of accomplishment derived from professional success is often seen as a validation of one’s capabilities, leading to a strong sense of pride and fulfillment (go to LinkedIn and see it for yourself).

Work is then perceived not merely as a means to an end but as a defining aspect of an individual’s character and value.

This work-centric culture has also fueled a spirit of competition and excellence, pushing individuals and industries to strive for continuous improvement. This drive has played a pivotal role in the development of many sectors, from technology to healthcare, that’s no doubt about that.

When I quit my job in corporate back in March 2023, going to social gatherings and having to answer this question would annoy me so much.

Once, at a party during Thanksgiving, a person I had just met asked what I did for a living. Still shy, I answered: “I am a writer and a career mentor, how about you?”. She then started bragging about working as a Project Manager at Cisco: “You know? Technology, complex, boring stuff”. I laughed. “It’s anything but boring, and you don’t need to downplay it under the assumption that I won’t comprehend technology.” However, I opted for a diplomatic response, merely nodding and offering a light-hearted, “Oh, so interesting!”.

She then asked: “What do you write about? And what type of mentoring you do?”. I answered: “I write about coding, cloud computing, and IT infrastructure. And I mentor women in technology”. She was perplexed, and we finished the conversation.

Your job title will not make me more interested in you. Tell me about your hobbies, the latest book you’ve read, your most recent vacation, how you go about teaching your kids something new, and maybe recommend a podcast on personal development. Anything but work.

Burnout & Vulnerability: It is Okay to Say That You're Not Okay

The constant pursuit of professional success led me to burnout, stress, and neglect some of the important aspects of my life, especially my mental health and personal well-being. The pressure to conform to societal expectations and define myself solely by my job title contributed to a lack of work-life balance and purpose.

The nonstop emphasis on work as a primary identifier contributed to underlying insecurity and inadequacy, and I started feeling I didn't belong, even though I was part of the groups that would advocate the most for gender equality in the organization. Being a woman of color adds another layer to that complex system.

The question “What do you do for a living?” encapsulates the essence of a work-centric culture that has shaped the American identity. While the emphasis on hard work and success has undoubtedly driven economic prosperity and innovation, the balance that allows professionals, especially the ones that are early in their careers or making a change, to pursue a career in technology and want to thrive both professionally and personally is something I discuss deeply with my mentees.

When I started embracing a more holistic view of my own identity, using my skills and abilities, and focusing on diversifying my skills, passions, and contributions beyond the workplace, I was able to be more content and fulfilled, personally and professionally.

Work-Life Balance Does Not Exist

I continued my work on mentoring women and young professionals in technology, continued my volunteer work at Brazilians in Tech, and started the Women in Technology publication, which led me to connect with amazing writers and technologists. I expanded my speaking engagements and moved from just online workshops to in-person ones, in Boston, specifically, which made me connect with more women in my community and brought a sense of physical belonging.

I continued reviewing scholarships for AnitaB and Tapia Conference, created digital products to help early-career professionals kickstart their careers in technology, and started teaching technology for Cambridge Community Television in my state. Oh! And the book I am a co-author, about women in technology, in Portuguese, is about to be released.

For some time, the question “What do you do for a living?” still bothered me, as I was in the process of not presenting myself as a “Solutions Engineer at a Big Tech Company” and shifted to saying: “Writer and career mentor,” with so much joy, pride and confidence. It took time, as any career transition does.

The challenge lies in finding the (not-so-perfect) balance between professional achievement and a well-rounded, meaningful life.

Mariana Carvalho is a writer, career mentor, Latino 30 Under 30 2022 by El Mundo Boston magazine, Mentor of the Year 2023 by WomenTech Network, with over 12 years of professional experience, the last 7 in corporate America. Connect: Mentoring | Medium | LinkedIn | Instagram | Threads | Website

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