“So, what do you do?”
I’m never quite sure how to answer that question and that’s what everybody seems to want to know these days. The enquiry, often from strangers or new acquaintances, is supposed to be harmless, meant to inform and guide how the next interaction will unfold — but implicit in its enquiry is the desire to place me in a box. They don’t really want to know what it is I do; they want to know what my job is. When asked, my typical answer revolves along the lines of “I do mostly social media with the occasional odd bits.” It’s imperative for me to include “other odd bits” because I do not want to be known only as the “social media girl” — a title which, to me, seems trivialising and superficial, one that promotes digital interactions but not necessarily meaningful connections.
It is not so much the categorisation that bothers me; people will always try to size you up. That’s just how we are wired: we act and react based on previously known schemas. But what I find most disconcerting is my own inability to view myself independently of my job.
Whether intentionally or not, I have become a person that associates my self-worth with the work I do. And perhaps, rightly so. We dedicate at least 16 years of our life preparing to enter the workforce: 12 years of compulsory education with the additional four years of undergraduate studies. We also spend more time working (or being at work) than at any other activity in our lives. Take the average Singapore resident who works for eight hours and sleeps for at least seven hours daily. Work makes up at least 47% of their waking life — that doesn’t even include the time spent on commuting to and from work!
Not to be overly dramatic, but our lives are finite. Because our time on earth is limited, time has become a precious commodity. To have free time, where we can choose exactly how or what we’d like to spend it on, is a luxury. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry puts it best in The Little Prince, “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” In other words, I need work to be important to justify all the time I spend on it.
Sure, we can say that work is something we all have to do to survive. We work to pay the bills, cover mortgages, put food on the table, send the kids (or ourselves) to school, and pay for any leisurely activity we want to indulge ourselves in (let’s be honest here, cocktails and wines cost a fortune, and May Lindstrom’s skincare line don’t come cheap either). But, more than that, I am of a generation expected to fulfill their passion. A privilege afforded by my parents, and those who came before them, who have worked themselves to the bone to give me the freedom to choose who I want to be. That, coupled with the illusion that our meritocratic system appears to reward those who are willing to put in the work, encouraged me and many of my peers to find work that is both rewarding and meaningful. My work needs to reflect the “me” I desire to be; it needs to reflect my identity, my values, and my sense of self.
And yet, truth of the matter is, we are not as free as we’d like to think. Our career choices are largely dependent on the systems we live in. If you were never exposed to video games to begin with, chances are you wouldn't even consider a career as a video game artist. There's also the changing job market: different times call for different skills, different job markets demand different qualifications. These days, a graphic designer is expected to master both print and digital mediums. Many companies would even prefer it if a designer was trained in UI design. Then there’s life: sometimes, we just can’t afford to pursue our dreams. Going to school or taking up certification may not be a financially feasible option. Months of underpaid, or worse, unpaid internships, seem to set the barriers to said dream job too high. And sometimes, we score our dream jobs only to realise it’s not quite what we want.
I delved into the world of marketing not by choice but by necessity. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to start my own non-profit — for what exactly I didn’t know. I had my fair share of working with and for various NGOs and non-profits. For one reason or another, I always ended up in a marketing-leaning role. I enjoyed the process of tweaking words ever so slightly and found myself drawn to the process of organising campaigns, but I was also dissatisfied. What really pushed me to change my field was my frustration with the way most non-profit workers (and feel free to lump social workers, teachers, and so on here too) are expected to thrive professionally on the bare minimum — and let’s not even talk about compensation. Even today, most organisations follow the golden 80/20 rule where 80% of the annual budget goes towards programmes and only 20% goes towards overheads. I just couldn’t roll with it anymore. Maybe I hadn’t found the right organization; maybe I didn’t have what it takes. All I know was that work, while meaningful, was no longer rewarding, so I had to make my move.
That’s when Public Culture came along. In many respect, my current job is a dream job: decent pay, flexible hours, amazing colleagues, and plenty of room to grow. I get to work in my PJs, take phone meetings before even washing my face, and occasionally spend time in other continents without having to dock off vacation days. It’s not easy to find a work environment that feels so much like home. We truly care for one another and I am forever grateful for finding a place where I can grow on my own terms. The studio too is at an important crossroad: we are slowly moving away from projects that just pay the bills to more meaningful ones, enabling us to use our work platform to explore unheard of or taken for granted narratives. A move which, if executed successfully, can further align work with my personal values.
Still, I am not content and I don’t think I will ever be. We (I like to think I’m not alone in this) want to believe that we are headed elsewhere: there is always a future, an alternative we can aspire to be. A possible outcome where who we are is closer to who we want to be. Of course, whether I actually am heading elsewhere is irrelevant. I just need to believe I am.