One of the first things people ask when you’re reuniting after a long time or meeting for the first time is “what do you do?”.

They’ll use this information you give them as a response to gauge how to perceive and treat you going forward. While not everyone intends to treat you based on what you do for a living, it’s a subconscious reaction that’s decades in the making. Because the reality is that we live in a hierarchical society that trains us to put people in boxes.

You’re unlikely to earn much respect if what you do is not deemed important, impressive or challenging. Or if it’s so easy that just about anyone can do it. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard people talk about how easy writing is. Meanwhile, there’s a phenomenon known as “writer’s block” that tells a different story. Or how much society looks down on the arts as an industry, despite how we artists create everything around them.

The classification can be seen in school settings too. For example, if you choose maths higher grade, you’re perceived and treated differently from someone who does standard grade maths. For those in the current syllabus, I assume this would be a pure maths vs maths lit comparison. The same can be said in tertiary education; for example, studying law or engineering vs fashion or human resources trigger different reception.

In almost all instances, “where you do it” is also a factor they consider. You’re perceived a certain way if you go to school A instead of B or work at company A instead of company B. It’s such a “can’t sit with us” mentality that we start internalising from a young age. By the time we are adults, we’ve completely tied our self-worth to labour-related accomplishments.

It’s a dangerous game as it can quickly isolate you from people that care about you and vice versa because you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t belong and are less than. You end up tirelessly focusing on building your career. Constantly striving for the next big move to feel worthy and on par with the people in certain circles you think you should be part of. You may withdraw from activities that you enjoy and people whose company you enjoy. By doing this, you’re widening the gap between work-life balance, which is already wide enough considering the hours we clock in during weekdays (not to mention the few hours we ‘squeeze’ in during our rest time).

The hustle culture hasn’t made it any easier either. We’re pressured to monetise our hobbies, to 1. be busier, 2. make more money and 3. seem like we’re thriving. It’s a very tempting endeavour because it says to you, the next time you have to answer the question “what do you do?” you’re going to sound very impressive!

But it’s not healthy to always be busy, and it contributes to the blurred lines between what you do and who you are. Studies show that basing one’s self-worth on external factors such as academic performance and work performance is harmful to one’s mental health. We, instead, should be basing it on our internal sources, like the characteristics that define us.

  • Are you kind to yourself and others?
  • Are you approachable?
  • Do you treat yourself and others with respect?
  • Are you helpful to yourself and others?
  • Are you an honest person?
  • Are you dependable and reliable?
  • Are you open to learning and unlearning things?

These are some of the many aspects that make up who you are. By definition, self-worth is the feeling that you deserve good things such as good health, happiness, joy, love, and success. In some of the research I’ve read, one psychologist said, “We shouldn’t be rating ourselves; we should just be ourselves.”

Of course, it’s easier said than done, but what matters is that we should try. Speaking from experience, it really is hard, especially with that inner critic voice always buzzing.

It’s always a seesaw ride! One day it’s up, and the other, it’s down. But I am practising self-compassion, which is the practice of saying and doing kind things towards yourself, with the same warmth or gentleness as you would for someone you care about. I tell myself that I am enough just as I am. If that’s true for me, it’s true for you too.


Do you have anxiety about your age? Read one writer’s experience here.

 Tell us: Do you agree that we place too much of our self-worth in our work or studies? Why or why not?