“What do you do?”
This question is simple enough at a networking event, but when dropped at a Friday night with friends is seen as the antithesis of good conversation.
Instead, we default to more socially acceptable after-hours questions like, “What are you up to this weekend?” Or “Have you seen the last Game of Thrones?” For many among us, this makes sense. When you’re on your feet all day as a cashier* or most days feel the same as a server, it’s understandable that the only thing less exciting than work is talking about our work.
But what about the people who have been gifted the opportunity of choice? Around 30% of Americans have a four-year college degree, affording them many more job options than others. A smaller percentage have successfully navigated their career path up the ladder and have obtained significant disposable income (read: financial security) and thus job choice.
Should this group of people be talking about their work?
The only difference between the first scenario and the second is that the latter group of people are likely among some of the most privileged people — in the world.
These are the exact people who should be talking about their work — after work. Why?
At the base level, if privileged people don’t find it necessary to talk about work after work, there is likely a negative externality* somewhere in the system. A negative externality is when the cost to society is greater than the cost to the person incurring the transaction.
Imagine a privileged class that doesn’t find their work meaningful enough to talk about it after 5pm. While a meaningful job does not always imply that the job benefits other people in society, research suggests pro-social behavior (helping someone else) is correlated with an increase in meaning. If the privileged class didn’t experience any meaning and only worked for the money, could we ever hope to see an equal society emerge?
The same argument could apply for jobs when viewed on a scale of ‘interesting-ness.’ When the most privileged people in society find their job so uninteresting that they just can’t talk about it after 5pm, we should worry. Is this some form of economic stagnation? These people are highly educated, likely at the top of their field. If they aren’t amused or interested in their job, how fast is their field — or society — actually moving?
And finally, reciprocity. This privileged group of people owe it to others to talk about their jobs. There is an obligation. The gift of being able to pick your career path, and even more, the luxury of being able to change jobs without the fear of missing rent — puts people in a position in which they are learning/doing/thinking about things that most people are not. They have experiences and insights within their work context that most people do not get to have. Thus, if I’m your friend** or your acquaintance, you better believe I want spillover effects and the opportunity to hear about your work.
When activated at scale, these negative consequences are greater on society than an individual person’s cost at taking the job they don’t want to talk about.
Of course, talking about work is where most people mess up
If people talk about their work incorrectly, they typically fall into one of two categories. They are either the cocky person bragging about their latest work award. They become intolerable within seconds. Or, they are the boring person, dragging on about small details that are not generally applicable to others.
However, if people can talk about their work correctly, then people become inspiring. People help their friends understand the state of bioengineering. They teach others about the future of transportation and discuss the latest design patterns for healthcare. They banter on the ethics of the gig economy. They learn and question the viability of fake meat.
At the base level, people who talk about work correctly tend to explore why their project is the most important thing they could be working on, and even more powerfully, why the problem excites them. When we talk about our work correctly, we are spreading ideas. At the height of these conversations, we are building on ideas.
Sadly, the line is easily crossed.
It’s likely why talking about work — especially for privileged people — can be so taboo at dinner parties. People tend to do it the incorrect way and thus come across as pretentious assholes looking to stroke their own egos.
This does not mean we shouldn’t talk about work, it just means that we need to get better at it when engaging.
Bigger question: Is it actually immoral when you don’t talk about your work?
The main reason this becomes a moral question is that some people in society get luckier than others. They have more income and thus — in our current society’s framework — have more power. With great power comes great (or at least some) responsibility. This should not be taken lightly. One way to avoid taking it lightly is to take our role in society with great meaning and purpose. Of course, this applies at all income levels, but it has more weight if you are in a position of power. If people did treat their role with great meaning and purpose, how could a world exist in which we did not discuss our work over drinks?
Of course, no one can love their job every year or every day. This is not the point, nor should it be implied from this article. However, on average, privileged humans — the people who are afforded the opportunity to turn work into a life’s work should — more often than not — want to share this work with others.
So…“What do you do?”
- Q: To really get to know someone, shouldn’t we talk about more vulnerable topics than our work?
- A: 100%. This is not an either/or decision. Read here for my thoughts on this. TLDR: of course. And we’re also very bad at this.
- Q: I find meaning in my work, but my work is objectively pretty boring to others. Do you really think people will want to hear about it?
- A: You’re talking about it the wrong way. Imagine you work at a security company, figuring out how to stop hackers from infiltrating a website. This could be seen as ‘boring’ to you, but likely because you’re stuck in the weeds of your latest project. Try abstracting your work. Think about the subjective decisions that go into creating a security protocol — are there moral dilemmas? What are the most at risk parts of the internet? If you could change one thing about security systems in general, what would it be? Why is this an important problem for the world to think about? Treat yourself like an expert. You are. You have implicit opinions on topics that you likely know more than 90% of other people — share them.
- Q: I have other hobbies! Why should I talk about my work? I already spend 8 hours+ a day on it.
- A: First: See above “reciprocity” reasoning. You don’t only have to talk about work. This article by no way suggests it should be 100% of your conversations but give others some spillover effects.
Second: Imagine a world where internal company teams only talked to themselves. There were no cross-functional discussions. What would happen? Many things, but among them, innovation would be slow. You wouldn’t know how your “cog in the wheel” intersected with others. You wouldn’t be able to build/iterate/integrate with them at any level. In fact, you may duplicate efforts, or worse, waste effort learning something they already know. Imagine your friends are the ultimate cross-functional teams. By discussing your work with them and them discussing their work with you, there is high potential to speed up your own innovative processes (for your work and your personal hobbies!) and theirs.
- Q: What’s the (bigger) upside?
A: Imagine a world where it is a norm to express your genuine meaning, passion, and excitement for your job. (btw I’ve been told this is the opposite norm in London — people talk about how much they dislike their job). If more and more people express how they find meaning in their job, the norm would start that having a meaningful job is an important criterion, possibly more important than a higher salary. This happens in the non-profit world now, but not in other worlds. People in the non-profit world take tiny salaries to do good. Many non-profit people hang out with each other and discuss their altruistic efforts, making it hard for them to leave and take a corporate job, less be looked down upon by their friends. Hanging out with a lot of people who are doing interesting/meaningful/worth sharing things will spread like a virus. People will feel pressure to do this. We won’t put as high of coefficient on earning potential as a critera for jobs — which could (long game) put pressure on companies to either start new divisions or products. Note: This is a bit why corporate social responsibility (CSR) originated —companies had external pressure to be better actors. This new norm may also put pressure on companies to invest in new products that quench their employees search for meaning — a bit why 20% time at Google started.
- Q: I’m a little offended or off-put by the way you’re talking about ‘privileged people,’ Don’t all people deserve to find meaning in their job?
A: Of course! Yes! But sadly about half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. In this case, Job choice is a luxury. We can attribute this to many factors — our education systems, systematic racism or the evolving risk-shift to the worker. Whatever it is, the day to day workday of people behind a counter or standing for 8 hours at a security job is fundamentally different than a person who graduated from University and has since navigated a career path. Job choice is privilege and it comes with power in society. Yes, it’s a touchy subject because we’re not great at talking about it. But it’s also why the work we do matters a lot and should be worth talking about — even after hours.
- 6% of Americans are in retail sales, 2.5% are servers, 5% are in the truck driving industry and many more (70M) at hourly jobs just looking to get by.
- I’m using “negative externality” slightly differently than it’s formal definition. A negative externality is when, for example, a person buys a vehicle that has high emissions. The private cost of consumption (buying the car) is not high enough to overcome the negative cost on the environment (emissions). In this case, I’m swapping “consumption” for “production” / choice in a job. Consider if all college graduates decided to become investment bankers — to obtain high salaries. This would mean societies educated class are not becoming government officials, academics, environmentalists, etc. The cost of taking a job without meaning/interestingness is lower to the person than it is to society. As with most externalities, the effect is negligible when one person participates and it is extreme at scale.
** Noted that this brings up a massive opportunity — how do we get social classes to mix and thus share more knowledge across class groups vs just within. This also suggests people should do much more public speaking, blog posts, media interviews that spread beyond the walls of social classes.