February 27, 2010

Joie de Vivre

"What do you do in life? En vie, as the French always ask..." Kamel, our tour guide, was probably one of the last people from my Tunisian tour group to ask me what I did for a living.

I raised my eyebrows. I'd told everybody else in our group the bits about marketing music and freelance writing, but I'd never felt like I'd properly answered the question. "What do I do? Je voyage. J'ecris. Je pense. La photographie..." Somehow talking about my travels, my personal writing, my thoughts and my photos seemed to get at the heart of me and my life more than describing what I do as an independent marketing consultant.

Ever since I quit my job over a year ago - which shattered my professional career into three or more different tracks - I've had this problem in parlor conversations. It's especially an issue in New York City - or Western society in general - where asking "What do you do?" clearly means "What do you do for a living?" But, unfortunately in my case, a living is not really living. So, except for when talking to Kamel, I've grown accustomed to answering others' questions with a question: "Do you mean what do I do to make money?"

I think it's possible that a person can make a life out of a job. You can help people every day and love it. Making a difference can make a good life. But for me, at least right now, work simply signifies a means to an end: make enough money to pay the rent, eat, and go on the next trip.

People don't really like to hear that when they're trying to make conversation. They have jobs. They must work. They focus on their careers, craft their elevator pitches, climb ladders, negotiate raises and pay insurance premiums. They miss the bus because their boss kept them late. They don suits and hoist briefcases, laptop bags. They input all the essential information about their life - their calendar, contacts and correspondences - into their Blackberries and iPhones and PDAs, all fragile digital devices that are easily dropped, broken, stolen or lost.

And one day, they don't have a job anymore. They are fired, or laid off, or eliminated, or forced to quit, and they feel as though they have no life left. How can you live when that which you do for a living simply ... disappears?

This is what I've set out to discover. What is life beyond work? What is more important than making my bosses money, collecting only a minor commission off their total wealth? What is my self-concept without the praise or "constructive criticism" of a yearly review, title changes, raises, and bonuses (or worse yet, the absence thereof)? What is the five-year-plan? Do I even need one?

What do I do?

For now, I try to live well.

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