God, How I Hate “And What Do You Do?”

Let’s think before we talk, people.

It’s a freezing but wonderfully sunny Saturday morning, and I’m sitting behind a large window looking out at the theater lobby. Four-year-­olds in Elmo T-­shirts are being  dragged in from the cold by their excited grandparents. The big glass doors are no obstacle for the January draft, so I have a heater above my head blowing down stuffy 90-degree air while I get scoffed at by impatient parents who commuted from Boston with their whining toddlers in tow. And I wonder how I got here.

Two years ago, I graduated summa cum laude with highest honors from a top-­rated liberal arts university. I was the top in my program, because I was the only one in my program. As the sole female student to major in music in three years, I studied classical voice with a professional opera singer and had private coaching lessons with the most sought-after accompanist in the city. I took private lessons, did countless independent studies, had a summer internship at a classical music festival in France and was the only person that year to fulfill a thesis project. Can we all agree I was quite the over­achiever?

Two weeks before graduation, I geared up for the reality of bills on their way and my need to start putting something towards the impending doom of student loans. I immediately found a job at a budding theater at the forefront of the “artistic rejuvenation” of a depressed part of town. It was really promising to find a job somewhat related to my field in an organization that was investing in developing this city I love. It liberated me to actually survive independently instead of moving back home with my parents like many of my peers.

A year after getting the job, which turned out to be incredibly boring the majority of the time, I interviewed for a more demanding, more interesting position. I didn’t get it. They told me I was a “valuable part of the customer service team” and they “really needed me on the front line.” I was also told there was very little hope of professional growth for me there.

So, here I am, coming up on my two-­year anniversary in what is clearly a dead-­end job. Staring at Facebook two-thirds of the time on slow days, maintaining a patient “Oh yes, the customer is always right” facade the rest of the time. I’m bored, and I’m not achieving a darned thing.

I’ve read article after article, study after study, about how typical I am. A twenty-­something college graduate working a low-­paying job that doesn’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. Underemployed, they call people like me. The term carries a heavy tone of disappointment within it, doesn’t it? When you are underemployed, you are under­worked, under­paid, have certainly under­achieved and are thoroughly underwhelmed.

If my college experience of over­achieving in an uncommon direction is telling, I really hate being on the low end of statistics. I always scored above average on standardized tests, I always did more than what was expected of me, I was a teacher’s favorite, a professor’s intern. Falling below the bar of what successful should look like is disappointing, to say the least. I’m not proud or excited to be asked by family members who watched me successfully come out on top in college, “So, when are you going to get a real job? You know, something related to your major?”

Well, the market for opera singers isn’t really booming at the moment. But I get your point.

So I may have peaked at 22. But I wonder, does being underemployed really mean I’m less valuable? Does that mean my life and my personhood are less ­than acceptable? Isn’t there another standard by which we can measure human beings than by their hourly rate? Why are we telling twenty-­somethings that because they aren’t making more money, employed full-time or working at a job that is related to their major, they are failing?

I could list here all of the things I’m doing in my spare time to prove that I’m not failing. I got married this year; I’m planning to tour the East Coast with my band; I’m writing this piece. My very boring, underwhelming, yet flexible and low-­demand job allows me a lot of time to be creative. It doesn’t consume my energy the way a more stressful full­-time position might. I can work on web design for my blog and the band, and I can even write at work. I’m not too drained when I come home to help with housework or to be really present with my husband.

I’m actually grateful for all my job allows me to get done, things I care about and love more than any job I’ll ever have.

But why should I have to justify myself? When someone asks me, “What do you do?” why do I say, “Well, my job is boring, BUT I am getting things done! I’m doing something, I swear!”?

Can I suggest the better question is, “Who are you?” or, “What are you becoming?” In my twenties, my brain will continue developing and maturing. I will make significant decisions (like getting married, having kids and choosing a religion) that will affect the rest of my life. My beliefs and values will take shape, and I will most likely choose a geographical location for myself and my family. It’s hard to believe that with all of this happening, everyone still asks about work. That thing that I do for only a third of my time. Those hours of my week that allow me to pay my rent and live this lifestyle I’ve chosen.

Maybe all of us can prepare to answer this question better. Maybe we can ask it better, too. Dear twenty-something with the dead-end job, before the next time you’re asked, “What do you do?” you can ponder the significance of your life. Maybe you can wonder—before engaging with the imminent “Oh this economy!” or “You’ve really got to network!” small ­talk—what does it matter? And maybe, before you ask someone this very question, you can choose instead to ask, “What are your interests?” or “What are the struggles or joys your life has handed you recently?”

What do we do? We live and breathe and talk and dream. We have hopes and fears. We are working on being better humans every day. We do selfish, selfless, foolish and smart. We do prideful, beautiful, creative and cruel. Sometimes we do jobs we hate, sometimes we do jobs we love, but that’s not all we do. For God’s sake, that’s not all we are.

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