Sunday, March 2, 2008

"What Do You Do?": A Tribute To Ben H.

I write with a heavy heart tonight; I found out that Ben, a friend of mine from home, passed away suddenly yesterday. This is one of those times when it is hard to be so far away...

Since leaving Marquette, I had only seen Ben occasionally, but when I did, he was never without an encouraging word of support or a positive vibe, and that's what I'll remember most. My mind drifts back to the last time I spent hanging out with him: New Year's Eve at my buddy Nick's place. In the first wee hours of 2008, Ben and I had a lengthy discussion about work, careers, and passion -- about what is meant when people ask "What do you do?" and how one should answer that question.

Eventually I think I convinced Ben that rightly or wrongly the asker of such a question wants to know what you do for a living - not necessarily what you yearn to be. Finally agreeing that my supposition may be true about what people want when they ask, Ben simply said that was dumb, that people shouldn't be defined -- or define themselves -- by what they do to earn money. And I agreed with him. But the hard part is that anytime you answer the question, "what do you do?", you are immediately judged (consciously or subconsciously) by the asker.

And since being judged "successful" is something that usually feels better than being judged "a loser" or even "a dreamer," it would likely be easier to tell someone that you are a Bank President rather than a gardener, even if that small flower garden in your backyard is your pride and joy and you spend every weekend and holiday making it even more lovely and wonderful and you cannot wait until you can retire from that stupid bank and spend every waking moment with your hands in the dirt. But, imagine how much more we would know about that person and his true self if he answered the second way! And that's what Ben was getting at.

In my case, he said that I shouldn't say I was a teacher or standardized patient or tradeshow spokesperson, or promotions guy, or whatever I happen to be doing to support myself financially at any given time. I should say "I'm an actor" -- not even "an aspiring actor" since that cheapens it by already having a built-in excuse why I haven't been seen on NBC or in Will Ferrell's last movie. If people judge me or roll their eyes, that's their problem, he said. I should be proud that I am following my dream. According to Ben, we all are what we long to be inside, and if someone is in sales, but her real passion lies in painting, she should tell anyone that asks what they do, "I am an artist!" And not care what that person thinks.

I know there are a lucky few who happen to be making a living doing exactly what they love. And those people are certainly lucky, I hope to someday join their ranks. But, for the rest of us, think about it for a moment next time someone asks what you do. If you don't happen to make the big bucks doing what you're most passionate about, consider telling them your passion instead.

No doubt in some way hued by our early morning discussion two months ago, I have indeed told everyone who has asked since, "I am an actor." So, thank you Ben.


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