It’s inevitable, isn’t it? When you meet someone, the conversation always makes a stop by your work.
You feel it coming from the moment you first learn someone’s name: “So, what do you do?”
A lot of us really hate this questions. How do you feel about it? If you have any ounce of struggle with your job or dissonance between what you do and who you are, you likely don’t care for that question.
When we do work that is congruent with our identity and values, it’s easy and fun to talk about. But if it’s not something we believe in 100%, there can be awkward feelings of shame or embarrassment around it.
If you’ve ever had a job that you weren’t in love with, I have something to say to you:
No matter what you do, what if you were proud of it? Can you imagine it? Can you imagine answering with confidence when someone asks what you do? Can you imagine not feeling that shameful and squirmy feeling?
No matter where you are in life and work, please hear this:
Whatever you’re doing,
even if it’s not what you want to be doing,
even if it’s not your dream,
even if you don’t like your job,
even if you’re not using your degree(s),
even if you have breakdowns every night before bed as you dread the next day at work…even then…
you have nothing to feel ashamed of.
I love the high levels of thinking around work. I love thinking about purpose, meaning, calling, vocation, mission and the mark you want to leave on the world. I love all of that.
But work isn’t only about that. It’s also about paying the bills. It’s also about making ends meet. It’s about finding a way to get the things that you need in life.
Work is also what you do to get by.
And there’s nothing wrong with getting by.
I spent a few years serving pizzas. I don’t regret those years. I learned a lot about how to help people have a good customer experience and how restaurants run.
In college I sat at a security desk at the entrance to a dorm from 3-8am, trying to stay awake and hoping to get some homework done—rarely doing either well.
In high school, I cut grass and worked as a church janitor.
In Jr. High I cleaned up pens at a llama farm.
When I’m not working on The Meaning Movement, I’m a photographer. And I recently began doing contract work for an online video-based software company.
I’ve taught classes at a Jr. college. I’ve served pizza at a pizza joint.
Was I proud to be doing those things? No. Not always. But did they get me where I am today? Yes. And am I proud of that? Heck yes!
A good friend of mine is a talented writer. She’s going to make a full time living off her work some day, but right now, she works at the YMCA. It gives her an income and gets her out of her house and out of her head.
Another friend is a musician. His band is fantastic, and their following is growing— slowly but surely. They make some income as a band, but it’s not enough to sustain his family. Right now, he works at a game store.
Listen: I don’t care what you do— if it’s what you need to be doing right now, then bless it. Get that money! Do what you need to do. And feel proud about it!
Life is hard. Making ends meet is a challenge. And if you’re working, then you’ve found a way to make it work for now.
So, let’s stop it with the job and career shame. You have no reason to feel ashamed of your job!
How to Answer Without Embarrassment When Someone Asks What You Do
When someone asks what you do, own it. Here are three options you can borrow in response. Tell them what you do and follow up with:
1) It’s just a job. I’m not sure what I’m up to in life, but I’m exploring options.
2) But I’m not really that into it, nor do I find my identity in it. Here are the things that really wake me up in the morning…
3) But I’m trying to find a way to do ___(that thing that you really want to do)____. I’d love if you know anyone doing similar work that might be able to help me get there.
And then leave it at that.
I want you to have the permission to let that be enough.
Whoever it is that you’re afraid of disappointing, they’re not worth it.
The Source of Job Shame
Psychologically, shame is the result of a dissonance between your standards and your actions. When it comes to your work, you feel like you should be doing something different or in some way better than what you are currently doing.
Feeling ashamed of your job is the result of working a job that is below your standards in some way.
It can be helpful to have high standards for yourself— they can motivate you to achieve greatness in your life and work. But they can be condemning if they push you to feel shame about who you are and what you do.
Your standards for yourself and your work come from your story. Do you know where? Who was it that told you that you needed to pursue a specific career? Who is it that has so much power over you?
Maybe it was a parent who believed that you should be a doctor or lawyer, but now you’re working retail.
Maybe it was a teacher who said that you were too smart to work with your hands, but now you’re a groundskeeper.
Maybe it was a mentor who told you that you could be a great business owner, but for now you’re waiting tables.
Spend some time identifying those stories and those voices. Doing so will help you take back some of their power.
We’re All In Process
If you need someone’s permission to be in process, I’m hereby giving it to you. If your dad calls and wants an explanation, send him a link to this post.
I want you to know that you’re ok. Own it. Rock what you got. If you have a job, it’s a gift. Sure, it may not be the dream, but it’s a job— and that’s better than what a lot of people have.
I love helping you step into who you were born to be, but I’m tired of the shame and groveling that happens to the people that don’t know what that is yet.
Next Time You Feel Ashamed of Your Job, Remember This…
Everyone is in process. You’re in process. Own it. There’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re not allowed to be in process, then you’ll never accomplish anything worthwhile.
Every book started as some silly scribbles on a piece of paper.
Every scientific discovery started as a crazy idea.
Every Fortune 500 company began with a half-baked concept.
Every movement started small.
Every person you admire had to figure it out as they went.
If they get the chance to be in process, then you get it as well.
We’re all unfinished. That’s the point. The process is what makes the story. A dream is only a dream when it’s different from reality. If you have big dreams, it means your life isn’t everything it could be. And that’s the point. There’s possibility! It doesn’t matter where you are right now. It’s a starting place. It’s another step in the process. What matters is that you own it.
Next time someone asks what you do, take a deep breath, remember that you’re enough. And then make solid eye contact and tell them, without shame, guilt, or that squirmy-I-can’t-wait-to-change-the-subject feeling.
In the comments below, I want to hear from you. What do you do that you feel embarrassed or ashamed of? Where do you think that comes from?
I have a master’s degree and graduated 2 years ago but haven’t been able to find a job that relates to my area because I dont have “enough” experience. In Mexico is really hard to find a job when you dont have enough experience or the right connections, it doesnt matter that you are educated “enough”. Im currently working in a call center (kind of) and everyone always ask me what am I doing here when I should be somewhere else due to my studies. This is something that really affects me, not because of what other people think but that I also think that myself. I’ve been telling myself that it is temporary and that Im here due to certain events , but I cant help to feel that I am wasting my time here.
What about someone that has lost their mental abilities? I have been struggling with depression, and somehow with that in the last 6-8 months I became incompetent at my job (calibration technician at a medical device company). I just started making mistake after mistake, and couldn’t improve my performance. I had to be moved to being a custodian, working nights, at a 3 dollar an hour pay cut. While I am grateful they gave me another job instead of firing me, I have low expectations of being able to do this job well enough to keep it. I have just done my first day of training in the area where I will work, there is a lot of work to do and quite limited time to do it in. I am now slow and forgetful. So I have just gone from a long string of jobs where a lot was expected and I delivered, to a low level low status job, and I probably can’t even do that. How am I not supposed to feel shame, that I am now a failure, that I am broken and may not be able to be fixed?
Thanks for your note. Depression is a very serious struggle. If you have yet to do so please find a therapist as soon as possible.
As far as your question about shame: when I hear your story I can see that you feel shame, but the events all make sense to me. If someone has to take a sick leave because they have the flu, there is no judgement against them. The same should be said for emotional struggles. There’s clearly more going on here than surface level work issues.
Again, please reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible. Depending what area you are located in, Psychology Today offers a directory here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists
I have been doing therapy. I have taken many different anti-depressants. I have had ECT. Nothing works. I am barely holding on day to day, nobody cares or can do anything else for me. I am just expected to somehow keep providing for the family while getting little to no support other than “think positive thoughts”. My wife has withdrawn from me to the point where we are just roommates. I am upset, angry, depressed, have suicidal ideation, and just all around hate myself. Self harm thoughts are reoccurring, I often have to fight off urges to cry at work, and just keep sinking lower and lower. I think about going into the mental ward but that didn’t help at all before, so why do it again?
Although 4 years removed I still feel compelled to reply. Mark, I can’t imagine what you are going through. I hope that you are in a better place with your journey, but if not I hope that you continue to fight and stay hopeful. Seeking an alternative therapist, alternative self-care, etc. to find the solution that works best for you. I am hopeful there is an answer to situation that will have you seeing better days. Be well Mark.
Thanks for circling back Kram. I’m not sure how I missed that response. I hope all is well with Mark as well.
Thanks for this wonderful piece Dan.
Thanks for reading Edward!
Dan, thank you so much for this post. I need this so much right now. Personally, I have followed my intuition (heart) ever since I left high school for college. I never graduated because it told me to take a break. I was incredibly socially anxious. Thereafter, I started and failed at several entrepreneurial ventures. The most recent, I succeeded for a full year—full-time—but hated the work and stress; so I quit. Now, my heart has told me to write an autobiography (which I’m 110% for!). But it also told me to take my job back at the Starbucks in one of the wealthiest areas in the world (to provide income)… which makes me feel like I’m taking 10 steps backward in life.
I’m such a go-getter and I’m so scared to really begin work at Starbucks, because “what will people think?” right? Damn! I hate my ego! So, yes, I will most certainly dig through the roots of my pride and insecurities in this arena, because I HAVE TO! Your post really has helped and will continue to help me a ton. Something I’m, in a way, happy to grapple with.
Thanks for this Spencer. I really appreciate your thoughts. I’m glad this resonated with you and that you found it helpful.
Starbucks is a great place to work. I know quite a few people who been helped by a job at Starbucks to get where they want to go or to simply have income and benefits in the meantime (good benefits too!).
Keep your head up.
Firstly, thank you for writing this post.
I am too in the same situation. I have recently had work cut back from a 7 day part time job to just weekends. As a result, I am struggling to make ends meet. To try and reduce the struggle, I have taken on a job as a pizza delivery driver. What a change…..from making $40 – $50 in a couple of hours to trying and making the same amount in a whole evening. I am totally ashamed to admit to people about what I do now. In addition to the change, I am slowly showing signs of depression. But, all in all, I try to keep my head up and smile as much as possible.
Keep your head up! You’re making it work, and there’s no shame in making it work. Don’t give up.
My case might be different from the intended target of this article. It’s not about flipping burgers or whipping up lattes.
I work as a low-level lead software developer. I am over 50, with almost 30 years of experience. I manage 2 developers, both older than me. Salaries are very low where we work. It’s a very small company, perennially struggling.
The people are all decent and nice though, from the CEO down.
My friends I went to university with are making double or more what I do. I should be an IT manager in some big place. OR, even at a small place like where I work, I should be at least be the main guy driving technology. However above me there is a CTO, a really brilliant guy who is heads and shoulders better than me. And even our CEO is smarter than me at my own job (even though he’s managing a myriad other things like biz dev, marketing, sales, financing, etc.)
All this fills me with feelings of defeat, degradation, and above all shame. I just can’t accept myself being a person of such low ability. I don’t want to kill myself but I can’t figure out how to live with myself.
And this is going to sound truly horrible, but by this measure I look down on the 2 guys I manage even more than I look down on myself. This makes me feel like a terrible person but it’s the truth. I think the company can only afford loser trash like us.
Thanks for this Benbo. I’m curious: what keeps you there? It sounds like there’s not much upward mobility and you don’t care for your role that much. Why not seek out something with more space for growth?
I have tried to look for other jobs but didn’t get very far.
For one thing, I believe there’s a lot of age discrimination out there. In fact this may be related to the very factor I wrote about above (that I’m ashamed about): I’m in a pretty low position for a guy in his early 50’s with nearly 30 years experience. Maybe employers are viewing me as a bit of a loser.
Another thing is that because I lack a great track record, I haven’t made a huge effort to get a job at a higher level. I see tech leader roles that need someone to manage teams of 30 or so. I’ve only ever managed projects with 2 or 3 or 5 (at most) people. I’d be petrified managing 30 people.
The third factor, which may run counter to the other factors, is that I actually like my company. (What I dislike is the pay, and my own level of underachievement for a guy my age. I hate myself, not my company). As I wrote above, everyone here is kind and decent. The CEO is tough but fair, sincere, and a very good listener.
Even the 2 guys I manage are decent men. They are good fathers and husbands. This makes me all the more sad thinking of them as losers, but the fact is that they are older than me and in an even lower position, and I am a loser, so logically it just washes out that they must be losers too. Besides the work title/role, they just seem decidedly dumber than me in our everyday work.
So I want to do a great job here but I feel so much less intelligent and capable than others here in key positions. I’m just too slow and dumb (although I feel smarter than the 2 guys I manage). Besides my low status in my career, my inferiority in my own company among my peers (like our project manager, our product manager, the CTO, of course the CEO) contributes to feeling ashamed of myself.
Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It has been helpful for me.
I have been actively seeking growth in a company where there is no growth possible, and I am currently looking for more meaningful work. However, I feel extreme shame around what I do because of high expectations I set for myself. You mention stories that mentors may have told you and moving past them, but how do you help yourself cope with stories that you set up for yourself?
I have many inspiring friends and I am attempting to surround myself in support, but the actual physical location I find myself living in is so economically depressed, that I find people’s negative attitudes towards money difficult to be around. I dream big. I always have, but I’m wrestling with even feeling ashamed by these big dreams.
Hi Diana – You start dealing with the stories by telling them. Get them out on paper or in conversation with a friend or therapist. You have to put words to the unrealistic expectations before you can begin to overcome them. Keep going. You’re on the right track!
This resonated with me so much! Spent 8 years in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I received my degree in early childhood education because I could and I thought I’d like the education route if I got my degree. Well years later I’m burnt out from preschool jobs. So now I’ve taken a housekeeping job, a little bit more money and no extra work! However I feel I have a calling in fitness because I am always counseling people with fitness and nutrition. Just not sure about the college route again. Plus I have gotten engaged this year! So I shall press on in the working world and it’s OK to just have a job. From Virginia.
I want to be in a creative profession and I have to move out of the area to do so. I eventually want to move to Canada; well, before I decided that I wanted to move overseas, I needed a full-time job and a job that would allow me to keep my part-time library job. I love my part-time job (and I will be sad to leave it when I finally can move, but I can’t advance and I know moving will help), so I took a full-time job not even in my field and only required a HS diploma. I have an English degree and this is appealing insurance companies for underpayments.
Needless to say, I was invited to apply for residency in Canada, but full-time job didn’t pull through by writing a letter. Canada needed to see that I have employment history and they needed letters from all of my employers. Money was tight and I was having health issues, so it was probably a blessing in disguise.
However, this job isn’t professional and in the attempt to get something more professional at that company, the only professional analyst job wasn’t a fit. I’m not mathematically inclined. They tried promoting me to a whatever, not quite an analyst since it only required a HS diploma, and I turned them down. I hate my job and it just doesn’t pay much to get me to point B. To make it even worse, I’m bullied on the daily. Even my part-time library job is turning into that. I feel defeated.
Wow, Dan. You’ve instantly made me a fan. I’m so glad I came across this article. It’s all the things I never knew I needed to hear. Thanks for helping me to see the bright side of life. Cheers from TN!
Thanks a bunch Jay! Happy you found this and really glad it was helpful!
Dan, this is the single most important thing I’ve read all year. I’ve been in retail for the past 5 years — my only way to get back into the workforce after voluntarily leaving my well-paying office job a few years earlier to parent a newly-adopted kid — and have been struggling to get out. To have spent my life savings on multiple career coaches and resume writers, trying desperately to network and not getting any traction, and then see my younger co-workers getting hit up by recruiters left and right after only a few tweaks to their LinkedIn profiles has been a demoralizing confidence-destroyer. Throw in a global pandemic, and now I feel like I’ll NEVER be able to move on to something new. But this article beautifully articulates how we’re all “in process,” that we’re all where we need to be at this moment and that it’s probably not our final destination. Thank you for helping me recognize that I’m enough right now, regardless of my job.
Wow Marc. Thanks so much for this. I’m so grateful that you found your way here and that this was/is helpful. You’re not stuck, even if you feel like you are a lot of the time. Keep going and don’t give up. I’m rooting for you!
Hey Dan. Your article truly hits home for me. I am over 50 and had an unexpected accident that resulted in me having a severely broken arm. I had to leave my current job in hospitality and go through weeks of pain and intense physical therapy. I’m all good now but I don’t want to go back to my original job, which was a good job, but the environment in the hospitality industry is highly conducive to Covid transmissions and I don’t feel safe there.
So I’ve been looking for another job until I could get back from my broken arm. Have applied and tried and tried and tried and can’t even get a single interview. I have a very strong background. I’m a very capable, energetic and intelligent person but I finally had to go to a temporary agency and ended up with a job in an auto body place. I am ashamed about working there and I don’t want to tell any of my friends. I know they’re all going to think this is way beneath my capabilities and is not in line with my values (as you touched on). And I have tremendous respect for the people I’m working with in this auto body shop. It’s just nothing that I ever anticipated I’d be working at in my life.
I am accustomed to working high-level executive jobs in large organizations and my last job was sort of a compromise as it was. So I’m really struggling. I don’t know what to say to my friends. I don’t want to tell them. I know that everyone says, well if they’re your real friend they’re not going to mind. But I don’t feel that way. I feel I am doing myself a disservice but don’t see another choice. Having trouble sleeping at night. Anxiety, high heart rate. So I don’t really know what to do and I’m just happy to be having a paycheck!! I’m trying to be an adult about this but at the same time I feel a tremendous amount of shame.
Thank you for showing a place that hits home for a lot of people right now affected by how Covid has changed their career path and led us to places we might normally have never considered – that is, never would have considered because it is incongruent with our abilities and self identity.
Thanks for sharing your story here Michelle. I resonate with your experience at that job. It can be so tough! I hope this piece gives you some solace. Hang in there! You’ll make it out!
Thank your for offering solutions for problems that i faced partly. I am working a job that sounds fancy right now but this job does not help me to cover my needs properly. I mean I feel comfortable to tell where I work but I don’t feel comfortable for my income. Even I have cut down on my expenses, I can’t still make progress economically. My solution is to find extra job in order to have more economic freedom. I don’t mean I want to throw money around (I am fully aware of that it is not possible to do such thing with extra job) . For example, I want that when I go to vacation I don’t want to calculate how I am going to spend rest of the month. Anyway… My problem is that I am ready to work physically but I am not ready to work mentally for extra job. Because I am shy about what people think. Your article just gave me courage. I believe that it is time to think about options for extra job. Because I think that maybe my future extra job can create a new path for me. I have might be talked about a little this a little that. Thank you for your help again…
Thanks for the comment Mackali. Good luck with the extra job!
Thanks Dan for the piece! I really needed it. Not sure if you’ll be able to resonate with me but I feel like sharing. I am from India and had a great school life with top grades throughout. Everyone had great expectations from me, and it somehow got into my head. I dropped an year after high school, which is a big taboo here. Came back again to my school the next year but had to start from where I left with all my friends moving on to the next year. Graduated with low scores as by that time I was totally direction less. Did my masters in business as everyone else was doing it, even when I knew I had no aptitude for business. Worked for smaller durations in different industries including real estate sales and manufacturing, and finally thought of shifting to what I always wanted — writing. I started from a scratch as a content writer. And just like what you said, it helped me sustain. As of now, I’ve spent years in the writing industry taking on managerial roles. I now work for a US-based company with a US retail giant as our client. The work involves writing product descriptions.
Don’t know but I feel ashamed to talk about my job. The pay is good, although if not that good as compared to the pay of my peers, siblings, relations or other professions, but it helps me meet ends and take care of my child. I really don’t want anyone to bring up the topic of what I do, as I feel they’ll look down upon me thinking I write just descriptions. I have been an introverted person. but now I have stopped meeting people at all owing to the shame that has crippled me. This thought makes me sick, and even drives me to the extent of thinking that I failed miserably. Your article gave me a little hope, even if temporary. Just want to thank you.
I am Indian struggling with imposter syndrome, and not owning whatever I have done with my career. I minimize the work done, even though I work with leadership team in my role. They expect me to own my work with confidence, as it shows that I don’t.
Now, I am reading books on confidence and realising that the social conditioning of having to be someone significant by certain age/stage, is a baggage that is just not worth carrying.
This article has been insightful to shed the old way and think of new story.
As I embark on learning how to do that, thought would tell you that you are understood and that make it Day 1 of your new story.
This is not to say abandon your current story, masters and managerial roles is not all achieve. Do not undermine yourself by comparing to others achievements.
All have their own stories, you focus and own yours. Good luck!
First of all, thank you Dan for the article, very nice reading indeed and much needed at this time.
I don’t know if someone will read this as I’m a few years later commenting on it but here it goes; I live in London but I’m from Spain, I’ve been here for many years but I have spent most of my life travelling around the world, I have been a proper adventurer. Backpacking, trekking to EBC, Annapurna, Kilimanjaro, spent years working on cruise ships, etc…Between all my adventures, I have always returned to London but given my inconsistency, I have never progressed much career wise as I always had to start from zero, unlike my friends whom many have gone from strength to strength on their careers. I don’t have a university degree but never bothered me as I am as smart as anyone else but without the certifications. Sometimes that can be an issue as although I have most experience than most, in that sense, I feel an ignorant and regretful that I didn’t study when the time was right. During my travels, because I felt I was truly me and I was always excited about the next adventurer, I started writing a travel blog and I was proud and motivated. I felt I found my call but I felt obliged at some point to come back to London and well, I started working more and having less adventures. I’m not even sure how but I got into working as Duty Manager for a private residential buildings and I got stuck to the routine and the dreadful job. The pandemic started, I was fired in the middle of it, pretty desperate I was also traumatized because I got fired for helping a colleague and well, I was in a pretty poor mental estate. I did temping for a little while and after a few months I landed mu currently job. Well, and here we are, MY BIG EMBARASSMENT. For two years now, I am working as a Residential Concierge (with a decent salary, I must say) I am close to a depression for how much I hate this dead end job and I’m developing self hatred because even though I feel I’m ruining my own life by being stuck here, I hate myself because I hardly do anything to change my circumstances because I’m hopeless to find something that will give me purpose and will pay me well, is like an endless internal flight every minute of the day, every day for two years. I’m exhausted to live in my own mind, exhausted! But I feel deep shame that at my age (I’m 45) I am a Concierge in a quiet residential building when I was that person in the past, not that long ago, that people envied me for my adventures and travels around the world. I I keep asking myself, how did I end up like this? Why am I doing this to myself? I can change my circumstances!
Anyway, is a summary of me and apologies for the length. It is my job to improve my own life and take action and there is nothing wrong with my job but I’m deeply ashamed to tell people what I do. I live in London where you are what you do…is a sad reality because whether we like it or not, we are being judged based on our looks, age and jobs. I sometimes hate this world, honestly.
I don’t know about you reading this post, but I feel that everyone I know has better career and income than me and I know comparison is soul destroying but is very hard not to.