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Being Vs. Doing

May 9, 2009 | by Dina Mensch

Separating "Who I Am" from "What I Do".

When I was fresh out of law school, I would answer the question, "What do you do?" with much feeling, "I am a lawyer."

I had graduated from a highly selective New England college and a top-five law school. At the end of an internship, a Wall-Street law firm offered me a permanent position. This was after they had wined and dined me: cruises around Manhattan, outings at exclusive country clubs, and many trips to expensive city restaurants. (I also worked a little.) I felt on the top of the world. I had prestige, money, and connections. I also had a good family and friends. What else was there?

I started to become interested in Judaism during law school, where I had smart, accomplished friends who also actually enjoyed "quaint, ancient rituals" such as making kiddush Friday night and not taking the elevator in the dorm on Saturday. So after I finished law school I decided, for my obligatory pre-job, post-bar-exam trip across the ocean, that I would go to Israel and explore this strange world of the religious.

While in Jerusalem, I became enamored of Jewish learning. During seven years of "top-notch" American higher education, I had never encountered such intelligence and clarity about ideas that really mattered. I was awed by the superior personal qualities of the religious people I met, and I was tempted to extend my stay in Jerusalem to discover what it was all about. However, the powers-that-be at my law firm said that I must return, or else...


In my heart, I wanted to stay to explore something that had meaning and the potential capacity for life-changing experiences. But in my brain, where all my previous experiences were stored, I was afraid that if I gave up the job that I had worked so hard to get, that I had so proudly bragged about to impress others, I would lose my very sense of self.

Not only was I proud of my achievements, deep down I believed they made me a praiseworthy and successful human being. I couldn’t fathom "myself" apart from my accomplishments; my self-esteem was directly tied to my professional and academic successes.

If I decided to let this great job slip through my fingers, for the more ambiguous, non-concrete goal of "learning about Judaism," who would I be? I felt like I would be sailing without an anchor.

I struggled, because my identity was so tied up in what I was DOING.

I struggled, because my identity was so tied up in what I was DOING.

The question "What do you do?" is usually answered, "I am a ... (market analyst, administrator, etc.). Although the question is posed with the verb "to do," it is answered by the verb "to be."

For many people, especially those who have invested heavily in their chosen professions, what we do to make money defines us in our own minds. After spending thousands of dollars to get through school, thousands of hours of study and practice to become competent, and 45-50 hour work-weeks practicing at our craft, it seems as if there is no more room in our own minds to see ourselves in any other light.


What happens when one gets fired, laid off or fails in an undertaking?

Some people cope poorly in these situations because their self-esteem is undermined, rather than experiencing the misfortune as a fact of the economy or a learning experience.

On a deeper level, the tying together of one’s self-esteem to one’s professional success is not just practically unwise, it reflects an incorrect understanding of our humanity.

In the creation story, the Torah states that the first human being was created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. This has always been understood to mean that the human being was created with a soul, which is a portion, or reflection, so to speak, of Godliness. This soul is what differentiates us from animals. It is the essence that gives us the capacity to make moral choices and to do carry ourselves with dignity, unlike a cow or monkey.

The very fact that humans have at our core a sanctified essence is elevating and gives us intrinsic self-worth because God thought it worthwhile to create our soul! If God created me, I must have a purpose in this world! Therefore, the point of my existence, and my self-worth, revolve around my moral choices, not my professional success.


This concept liberates one from the cycle of feeling good about oneself when one is successful and feeling bad about oneself when one fails.

On a practical level as well, the ability to separate oneself from one’s work can give the necessary perspective to be able to leave a job or career when it turns negative or when one’s personal or spiritual life should take priority, as mine did.

The most liberating experience of my life was hanging up the phone with the law firm.

To the extent that a job or career drains an individual, or causes him or her to be dishonest or mean, it is surely damaging. Without the separation of "Who I Am" from "What I Do," one might never be able to evaluate the effect that work has on oneself.

Fortunately, with the help of close friends, I found the courage to tell the law partners that I would be staying in Israel, and if they had to give my job away, so be it. I stayed in Jerusalem for over one year, fell in love with Israel and Judaism, and also with a nice, cute guy whom I eventually married.

I’ve had children, traveled, taught, written, volunteered, prayed, grown as a person, and even worked as a lawyer since. But the most liberating experience of my life was the feeling of profound joy upon hanging up the phone with the law firm that day.

My existence suddenly expanded, as if, like a balloon, my soul was pumped up by dimensions I didn’t even realize existed. Not only was I not "sailing without an anchor," I was flying without a lead weight pulling me down! That anchor, my "work" self-definition, had confined me to a very narrow path in life.

Don’t wait for a mid-life crisis to do a self-evaluation. Stage your "crisis" now and do the soul-searching necessary to guide your career. Don’t let your career guide -- and limit -- the real you.

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