What’s My Line?

By Jim Whitt

This is an excerpt from Chapter 5  of The Transformational Power of Purpose: Finding & Fulfilling Your Purpose in Life:

What’s My Line? was a popular television game show in the 1950s and 60s. Contestants with unusual occupations would join the host on stage while a panel tried to guess his or her vocation by way of a good natured and often humorous interrogation. My favorite part of the program was the final guest, who was always a celebrity. Since the celebrity guest would be readily recognized, the panel donned masks that kept them “in the dark” so to speak. The celebrity guest would disguise his or her voice to throw the panel while answering the questions. It made for a lot of laughs.

As children we play our own little version of What’s My Line? except we are asking ourselves the questions and trying to guess what our occupation should be. We fantasize about what we want to be when we grow up. As we grow older we are told that to be successful and happy we need to go to school and make good grades so we can go to college and make good grades so we can go get a job and make a good employee. Why? So that we can make money, have a nice home, nice clothes, nice cars, take vacations, put our kids through college and retire in comfort. So we follow the formula, get a good job and guess what?

Our “line” of work often turns out to just be work.

I was listening to the radio one New Years Eve when the host of the program asked listeners to go to the station’s website and answer this multiple choice question: “As I look back on the past year, I am…”

a) Content in my life and job.
b) Content in my job, but not my life.
c) Content in my life, but not my job.
d) Don’t have a job or a life.

I logged onto the station’s web site to find out how people responded. Here are the results on a percentage basis:

a) Content in my life and job. (31%)
b) Content in my job, but not my life. (4%)
c) Content in my life, but not my job. (60%).
d) Don’t have a job or a life. (3%)

I particularly liked the last response.

Notice that nearly 70 % of the respondents were not content with their life and their job. The results of this unscientific poll were nearly a mirror image of the findings in the Life@Work survey I shared earlier. It once again validates the fact that people are quietly desperate.

Turn to the help wanted section of the classifieds in any Sunday newspaper and you’ll find more ads for positions in health care than any other industry. Are they creating that many new jobs in health care? No. So what’s going on? People are going back and forth, from hospital to hospital, clinic to clinic and medical practice to medical practice. Is it for more money? Better benefits? More vacation time?

Let’s face it, every industry has a fairly standardized pay scale and benefits package within a geographic region. So that typically isn’t the reason for turnover. Healthcare workers are subconsciously saying, “I’m looking for more than a paycheck and pension. I went into health care for altruistic reasons and I know there has to be someplace out there where I can find happiness and fulfillment in my work. So I’ll keep looking until I find it.” Translation: “My animal is being fed but my superhuman is going hungry. I see no purpose in my work so I’m trying to make as much money as I can Monday through Friday so I can spend it on something I enjoy this weekend to distract me from the fact that I have to go back to the salt mines Monday morning.”

When we are working only for money and what it will buy we are no different than an animal seeking food, shelter and safety. Unfortunately, this is why most of the workforce today is not motivated. We’re just animals manipulated by reward and punishment. And more money isn’t the answer. “I need more money” most often can be translated as: “Look, I hate my job, but I can be bribed. Give me more money and I’ll keep my mouth shut, keep my nose clean and do as I’m told.” Then what happens?

Six months later I want another raise. The pain of my work is once again greater than the pleasure of the reward. I need more stimulation. Doing my best Jerry McGuire imitation I say, “Show me the money!” This is a never-ending cycle — because money never was the real issue. But since I’ve been conditioned to respond to reward and punishment, I don’t consciously realize what the real issue is — a lack of purpose.

After a steady dose of workplace reality, we often find ourselves right back where we started as children, asking ourselves what we want to be when we grow up. The problem is we are grown up. So we change jobs and what happens? Same song, second verse. It reminds me of a scene from the movie As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson plays an obsessive-compulsive writer who is in perpetual therapy. One day as he walks out of the office of his therapist, he looks around at the other people waiting to see the psychologist and asks aloud, “Do you ever wonder, is this as good as it gets?”

One woman Po Bronson interviewed for What Should I do with My Life? kept referring to his book as his “What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?” book. “I think that’s a notably different question,” writes Bronson. “It lacks the ‘Should,’ which hints at a moral or aspirational imperative, and it overemphasizes ‘Want,’ as in I want I want I want… Our wants are fleeting. They are also indulgent. Every philosophy draws a hard line between what you want and what you need.”

If you have children you hear “I want” a lot. You hate to tell them no, but you know what they think they want isn’t anywhere close to what they really want. It’s like the scene from Bruce Almighty, where Bruce (Jim Carrey) is given a chance by God (Morgan Freeman) to play God. Bruce causes big problems when he answers people’s prayers.

Bruce: I just gave them all what they wanted.

God: Yeah, but since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?

“What do you want?” isn’t the right question. The right question is, “What is your purpose.” It’s the form follows function follows purpose thing again. We get it backwards. We are searching for the form instead of searching for the purpose.

The Transformational Power of Purpose: Finding & Fulfilling Your Purpose in Life contains exercises at the end of each chapter that will help you find your purpose in life and set you on the path of its fulfillment (it makes a great graduation gift!).


Leave a Comment