I pissed some people off when I said this on Twitter yesterday, but I’m sticking by it:
“You are what you get paid to do.”
People disagree because they refuse to be limited or labeled. Notice that I didn’t say you’re just what you get paid to do. And yet, when you identify someone by their profession, they object.
“This is Karl. He’s a busboy.”
Oh. So that’s all Karl is?
No, Karl is probably also a son, a brother, a lover, a friend, a pet owner, a volunteer, a student, an aspiring playwright, and a noteworthy violinist.
It’s just that the only one of those pastimes that actually pays Karl’s bills is “busboy.” Thus, Karl is, for the purposes of declaring his worth to the world, a busboy.
“But what if Karl is the best playwright I’ve ever met?” you ask. “Or what if he’s the best violinist in the city?”
Well, that’s cool too. He can be those things in certain contexts. When he’s sitting in a coffee shop writing a play, sure, he’s an aspiring playwright. When he’s rehearsing the violin in his attic, then he’s a violinist.
But at both of those times, he’s also a busboy. Because that’s what it says on his taxes.
The day he gets paid to play the violin, he can say he’s a violinist.
The day he gets paid for the licensing of one of his plays, he can say he’s a playwright.
And the day he gets paid more — and more regularly — to write plays or play the violin than he does to bus tables, by all means, he should say he’s a violinist or a playwright.
Because that’s what it’ll say on his taxes.
I think the problem people have with labels is that they want to be known for their skills and passions, rather than for their ability to earn a living. Getting paid is so transactional, and there are so many more cash jobs than sex jobs, that we yearn to be recognized for our other, rarer, “better” skills.
But there’s a difference between being a writer — a person who suffers for weeks and months on end (or not) to produce a written work that others will pay her for — and, say, being the intern who adds titles and tags to her agency client’s YouTube videos. One of those people is a writer; the other is an SEO apprentice. Both of those people may be ashamed of their jobs (as writers often love to hate themselves), but only one of them is being honest about it.
We might be better off if people were willing to identify themselves as “aspiring” writers, or directors “in training,” or some other qualifier that denotes a person’s pursuit of a passion in which they have not yet achieved a status of transactional relevance. But the Internet is immediate, and we all want to succeed today. Why denigrate your aspirations by declaring them as works in progress when you can call yourself a success before you’ve even begun?
The truth is, if you’re so frustrated by your day job that you prefer to self-identify as something other than what you get paid to do, you should either change careers — preferably into the field you keep telling people you’re already working in — or pursue what you love to the extent that you actually achieve a level of skill that convinces others to pay you for it. Otherwise, you’re fighting a battle of diminishing returns in both directions.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m not a real sociologist; I just play one on the Internet.