In our society we value work and success. It’s something I’ve always known, growing up in a family where I was encouraged to pursue a future career that would utilize my education. In high school I had a fairly blunt conversation with my mother on this topic. I was sitting on my bed, my mother across from me. We were talking about what I wanted to do when I grew up, a question that around my sophomore year of high school seemed to suddenly morph from a light and friendly topic to something that carried far more substantial weight. I told my mother that day, the sunlight pouring in through the sheer curtains of my bedroom window, that I wanted to be either a fashion designer or a photographer. I was in both classes at the time. They had surpassed my long time favorite – English. But when I told my mother that this was where my current interests lay she didn’t show the slightest elation. Instead she sort of pursed her lips and I could see her shoulders grow tense. “Brenna, you can’t be that,” she said.
“Why not?” The conversation had become serious and I found myself, like most teenagers are with their parents, combative.
“You’re too smart to be a photographer or designer. You need to do something with your mind.”
That comment has stuck with me; although I realize for my mother it was most likely a fleeting comment, a passing conversation that she now has no recollection of. It is something that over the past few years, as I begin to truly answer that question – What do you want to be when you grow up? – has continually replayed in my mind. Did that comment change my projection? Did my need to appease my mother force me out of a creative profession and instead steer me towards medicine? I think I would have found my way towards medicine anyway because the comment my mother said to me that day was not fueled by her own belief that I should pursue intellect over creativity. (Indeed I think there is much to be said about the intellect in photography, fashion design, and all forms of art for that matter.) Instead, I believe my mother’s fear that I would choose a “wrong” profession was rooted in our societal beliefs.
For one reason or another, we as a society, have created a hierarchy of professions. There are certain professions we see as prestigious and noteworthy, and therefore we give certain people more automatic respect because of the connotation of what they do for a living. It is generally thought that going into medicine is a good, worthy occupation. However why is it that doctors are more generously given respect in comparison to nurses, or PA’s, public health experts, or health care administrators? I don’t just mean when you are at a dinner party and say what your profession is to a stranger, but even within the workplace. I’ve worked as a medical scribe this past year and because my job doesn’t automatically fit into any one health care role — i.e. nurses or doctors — I’ve found that I have been accepted by both groups within the office. This mutual acceptance has allowed me to see the interactions between health care providers without any natural biases. It continues to amaze me how even though everyone is working towards the common goal of providing the best care for a patient that an unspoken heirarchy still exists.
I must point out that this hierarchy is completely subjective based off the values of a particular culture. In Thailand, for instance, teachers are highly respected and seen as one of the most important professions. In public, teachers are given the title Ajarn, the Thai word for teacher, rather than their first name. It is essentially the equivalent of being referred to as doctor if you have an MD, DO, or your PhD.
It was the other week, skiing the slopes on a weekday that I became confronted with the value our culture places on work and success in a way I was never aware of while I was a student. Having skied solo for the day I shared many chair lifts with other single skiers, most of them older males. Within the small conversations one question continually slipped in, usually at the beginning of the conversation – What do you do?
I shouldn’t have been taken aback by this question. But I was. Living in other countries I have noticed that this is never the first question you ask a stranger. You ask “Have you eaten?” or “Where are you going?” (Perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed here. In Thailand it was assumed within my community in Nan that I was a teacher. Maybe that is why no one ever asked me What do you do?) Men in skinny black jeans on motorbikes would look over at me while we were stopped at a light and ask Bai Nai? Where do you go? Women sitting on bus station benches would ask inquisitively, Gin leao? Have you eaten? I loved the societal connotations of these two questions, although I never quite mastered the art of answering them–it can be awkward to say to the guy next to you at a traffic light that you’re just wandering the city on a Saturday morning, trying to kill some time before you meet your friends for lunch. People didn’t necessarily care that you had achieved great success in your career or even that you had finished school, although they still do place great emphasis on a good education. Instead, they cared about what you were doing in that present moment; they cared that you were taken care of and that you were moving forward in a positive direction.
On the chair lift the other week I found myself wanting someone to ask me those questions again — Where are you going? Have you eaten? — instead of What do you do? I was a bit embarrassed, honestly, to answer the question. I’m a medical scribe. I felt that by admitting this, I was also admitting my failure to be successful. Why was being a medical scribe equivalent to failure, I thought? Why was it not good enough? The answer to these questions probably all rely on the personal connotations I have with being a scribe rather than the societal connotations. I’m sure nobody on that chairlift thought lesser of me because of what I did.
But I found myself wanting to add more. I felt the need to also tell everyone that I was going to medical school next year, that this job was only transitional. Why did I feel the need to add that? Why did I need people to know that I was striving for more than being a medical scribe?
As I noticed this tendency to elaborate, I tried to stop myself. The next person I shared a the ski lift with was an older man who lived in Keystone. Inevitably he came around to asking me what I did. “I’m a medical scribe.” No flare. No added boost of medical school. Just I’m a scribe. I let the words hang between us. There seemed to be no judgement. But still, I wondered, why did I put so much weight on that 4 word question?
Maybe, I thought, it was the fear of answering that question that gravitated me towards a career in medicine rather than a more creative occupation. Ever since I could read, I have also loved writing. My first (and truest) desire was to write a book. As a kid I always imagined I would grow up to be an author, although even then, I would never admit this when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. Perhaps I knew, even then, the perceived negative connotations I would receive. Or perhaps I also knew my need to survive on a stable income. Whatever it may be, somewhere along the way, societal expectations got the better of me and I too fell into my mother’s trap, feeling that I must utilize my intellect above my knack for creativity. That’s not to say I will never write–clearly I have sustained this blog far past its conceivable life and continued writing even when I know so few are actually reading; and I still have the crazy desire to continue writing and formulating books and stories as I venture further into the realm of medicine. But that question – What do you do? – needed to be answered in more tangible way for me. I choose, very deliberately, not to make writing my entire career.
At the end of the day I realized I had only asked one person I rode the chairlift with what they did. Not only was I uncomfortable answering the question, I was also uncomfortable asking the question.
Why, I thought, do we place so much emphasis on what we do? Why does it seem that our worth is tied to our success? And that success is measured in career aspiration and achievement rather than our base happiness? Instead of asking one another what we do, why cannot we ask: Are you happy? Are you loved? Have you eaten? Where are you going?
Because ultimately, I think, it is not what you do that shapes your life, but who you love and who loves you. What matters is how you find joy in your life, despite the monotony of a job and daily living. What matters is good food and good conversation. What matters is family and friendships that sustain us. What matters are deep life experiences that strip us of who we think we are and show us what truly matters.