New York is one of those places where many people seem to define themselves by their occupations. So often when you meet someone new, the first thing they ask you is what you do for a living. Although I consciously try not to do this, inevitably it happens. For the past five years, when people have asked me what I do, I have said "I work at a nonprofit," or "I'm a lawyer." Why do I feel the need to say that I'm a lawyer? I haven't practiced law for over five years!
I had a conversation recently with a woman who is the executive director of a very prominent organization. She said she sometimes fantasized about getting a job as a receptionist. She noted that her responsibilities would be crystal-clear, her hours would be limited, it would require less thought than her current job, and would leave her with enough time to spend with her family and do all the other things she wants to do outside of work. But there's a stigma out there -- it sounds much better to the outside world to be an executive director than to be a receptionist, although the same individual might be much happier at the more straightforward and well-defined receptionist job.
Sometimes, what you are depends on the context in which you are asked. I had the interesting experience recently of attending a freelancers' party sponsored by Mediabistro. A woman was snapping photos for their website, and when she asked what I do, I knew that "lawyer" was not the right answer. I turned to my friend Doug, who had brought me, for guidance. He prompted me: "You're a food writer." Ah, yes. "I'm a food writer."
As the hunt continues, I consider all the things I can cobble together to make money, some of which might allow me to have time to do things on the side, some of which won't, and some of which are things I do on the side that could turn into ways to make money, like the food writing. So what am I? When you look at the things I do or have done to make money, I'm a lawyer, a food writer, a self-defense instructor, a crepe-maker, an administrator, a secretary. But more importantly, I'm a woman, a friend, a sister, a daughter, a karaoke diva, a bit of a geek, a creative soul, and a hopeless romantic. What you do for a living is not necessarily who you are -- don't ever forget that, even in New York.