Men at Work: What A Job Means to A Man

life crisis self-esteem Aug 08, 2021

Many years ago, while having a good old chat over a beer, a close friend told me what his high-paying, stressful job meant to him.

"Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my job. I've been doing it for almost 30 years, and I'm extremely grateful for what it has provided. But it's not my true passion."

Initially, I was surprised. Here was an accomplished leader and businessman, highly respected as one of the best in his field, sharing that he felt 'okay' about his job.

Just, okay? Come on! This guy knew his stuff, he knew people, he was respected, he was a shaker and a mover.

"What this job provides me is the opportunity to get up early each morning and walk out from my house onto the beach and go for a surf. It also allows me to go anywhere in the world on surfing holidays with my son every year. That's why I've worked so hard for as long as I have. That's why I honestly do what I do.

He continued to say that it really didn't matter what job he did, as long as it allowed him to do the things that were most important to him. It was simply a job, a means to an end, and he would have followed any path as long as it enabled him to do what he was passionate about - and that was surfing.

His comments have stuck with me for all these years. It made me realize that the association of what you do for a living - is who you are, and how it 'makes you,' was utterly incorrect. His story offered a renewed perspective on the alternative relationships that men can have with their work.

Alain de Botton, the Swiss-born British philosopher and author, describes that "we spend most of our waking lives at work, in occupations, often chosen by our inexperienced younger selves”. He states that we rarely question how we got there or what our job actually means to us - and why we do it.

In his book, 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,' he explores why people pursue particular vocations or professions. Furthermore, he asks how our careers evolved and whether or not, we actually derive enjoyment in what we do eight to ten hours a day.

As a therapist who works exclusively with men, I've discovered that many men find themselves perplexed at how their career paths unfolded. The real twist is that so much of their identity is derived from what they do - yet they carry a tremendous amount of discontent despite showing up each day.

They insist on trudging along, never asking the question, 'how much of my job influences how I view myself?'

Think about that for a moment. What's often the first question you ask when you meet someone for the first time?

"What do you do…"?

Asking and answering that question has so many implications. It is a question that is personally, socially, and culturally loaded. Why is that?

Because for many men, their vocation represents their ability to create and maintain a sense of identity. Men traditionally derive a significant amount of self-esteem, meaning, and views of personal competency from their work, even more so than from other environments such as home life or social interactions.

A man's vocation can significantly influence his identity and his views on gender construction more than women. For example, a man's sense of self-worth and confidence is derived from his perception of being 'successful' or 'competent' at work.

Another essential construct for men is that their occupation provides a sense of belonging or inclusion. Developing meaningful and reciprocal relationships is often achieved through socialization and connection within the work environment.

This is evident with many men who describe that they experience difficulty making friends outside of work, even when the opportunities to make social connections are presented to them.

Men, who often lack social relationships with other men, find it easier to bond through the unification created by the pursuit of work. Men's vocations also matter to them because it is a channel for them to outwardly express their masculinity.

In a world that establishes a wide range of social and cultural prohibitions on masculine expression, for example, the ongoing debate of aggression and violence in sports, a man's vocation permits the enactment of his masculine traits. These traits include behavioral, physical, verbal, and emotional.

Men who commit themselves to workplace pursuits that require all of their 'blood, sweat, and tears' feels empowered to apply a wide range of masculine-specific constructs, such as loyalty, commitment, attractiveness, stamina, virility, and value.

Because of all the significance and meaning that men take from their occupation when things go wrong, the impact is disastrous. Men can experience actual loss when they lose their jobs, and they frequently grieve.

What can ultimately lead men into therapy is the shame of failure or satisfying cultural masculine expectations if they were to lose their job.

Yet, most concerning is that many men who have tethered themselves to their work - those who have developed an ironclad identity from their vocation deeply fear the consequences of losing themselves.

If you are experience discontent about work and recognize that uncertainty and ambivalence has creeped in regarding the direction of your career and what it means to you - contact me to schedule a free 30 minute phone consultation.

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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.