Monday, June 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Doomed by designation

When your job title is more valuable than your life

Update : 16 Sep 2023, 09:17 AM

On his last day on this earth, my brother was looking for a job that would fit his qualifications. What is great about the way Shafat explored opportunities is that he would see how they complimented his grit and work ethic, and how he could make a long-lasting impact through them. In the end, he never got to the job that would utilize his brilliant mind.


Late anthropologist David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs examines the senselessness in turning institutional work into an end in itself, and giving the act of performing a job moral significance. When we should be putting in fewer hours of our adult lives in getting the job done because of technological progress, we are still toiling and coming up with new ways and reasons to spend more time at work -- as if the number of hours we put in at our work are indicative of our responsible and hardworking character.


And yes that’s true, institutional work has become a measure of our character. We have come to define and recognize each other by our job title and credentials, not so much by the real impact our work has, the opportunities it creates, or the aspirations we have. Upon my brother’s untimely and tragic death, I get asked what he studied, what he did -- meaning what was his designation, was his work bound within the scope of an organization, did his work create value that could be quantified, what was Shafat’s contribution to the world. 


My brother took joy in giving things away, in solving people’s problems, helping our cousins in the family with their schoolwork, fixing computers and any appliances that needed repairing, in being my cheerleader, and never saying no to my outlandish dreams. He believed that I could achieve anything. Shafat taught second graders and stirred my dad in the right direction when his misguided entrepreneurial spirit would result in a loss.


During Shafat’s last days, we would get into spats over the phone because he would not settle down with the mediocrity of what was accessible and available, as I had wanted him to.


That is what I did -- I took the easy way out.


Our experience of what is lacking in us is inflated by our constant exposure to people’s portrayal of success on social media. Success stories inundate our newsfeed. I have become somewhat desensitized to LinkedIn posts on how thrilled my connections are to be starting as something important in a very important company, doing something that sounds very important.


How often does attending one conference or holding onto one job title make changes that are needed to make this world a better place? Making an impact may not even be the reason why someone might want to hold on to a job title. It is a symbol of prestige and power; it tells others in the society how you pay your bills, it gives them a sense of how much income you could be making, what your lifestyle might look like, what kinds of skills and credentials you may hold, boiling down to what type of person you are -- hardworking, successful, dependable, trustworthy, responsible, sociable, someone who matters, someone who deserves to be seen and heard. 


New designations are created every now and then and we anticipate there to be more as we gear up for the future of work. These job titles may not even reflect what we actually do at our jobs. Designations will continue to be an integral part of how we identify each other. When we introduce ourselves, our designation and the place of our work are the pieces of details that are second in line after our name.


We are seldom critical of how we have come to use job title as a reliable yardstick for knowing who is who. Who would you be without your job title? That is a conundrum Shafat faced, pangs of which he felt deeply to his very last day. Regardless of his great achievements and contributions in the lives of people around him, he wondered who he was. Who was my brother? What is work without having a job? What is value if there is no obvious way to monetize it? 


We begin to exist when our work can be part of an organized machine, when the effort can be realized in some form of quantified output. We live to work, and this hustle mindset and lifestyle have increasingly become global. I have been guilty of shaming my brother for not settling down, for not choosing to go for the opportunities that were readily available.


I am wary that entrepreneurial and creative pursuits are rewarded scantily; it’s a hit-or-miss, not everyone can tread on that path. Selling oneself short does not only happen because the job helps us pay the bills and therefore we must accept the first job offer we get, but because having a job provides us with an easy, ready-made response. 


It is more convenient to answer who I am if I have a job title. It may also be easier for a person with a job that pays to rationalize their volunteer work as something they spend their time doing because of the goodness of their heart, because they care about making a difference beyond the hard work that comes with their job title. Designations are not merely indicative of the kind of job responsibilities the job holder fulfills; they operate as status symbols. It is a measure of professional progress.


The world that we live in recognizes job designation to be an accurate predictor of our character, life experience, chances, upbringing, and social capital. 


My brother would probably get a chance to turn 27 this year if we could be defined by our dreams and aspirations and not be limited by the reality that surrounds us. Shafat believed in himself, he called himself the best of dreamers. He had venture plans chalked out for eliminating starvation -- something that deeply bothered him. He chalked out plans for a venture that would connect people who wanted to make a positive impact but did not know where and how to start.


In his last days, he worked on a massive business proposal to set up a biologics industry, which may see the light of the day, but he is not around to see any of his dreams being realized. None of this labour that he put in was institutionalized, therefore they remain unrecognized.


We look for recognition, appreciation, and value through institutions, quantifiable outcomes, and job titles and we lead our children to believe that real success lies in this recognition. But that is how we paralyze them. I wish I could have told Shafat that he is much more than any title he would ever hold. 


It is so easy for us to tell someone to just get a job, as if that is what is going to fulfill them. Seeing someone have a job can fool us into thinking that they are doing something with their life or that their life’s goal has been achieved. We cannot imagine a world without institutionalized work, but that should not be the only element that defines who we are and what we are capable of.


Now, I would just like to be known as my brother’s sister, not defined by the organization where I fulfill my job responsibilities to pay my bills, and not by my current job title. 


Sarzah Yeasmin is a writer and Roycellus Arya Shafat Rahman’s sister.

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