What do you do?

By Alyssa Stoller

“Arrogance is what kills the realisation of knowledge, and many scientists don’t seem to understand that. A fool learns from no one, average from the wise ones and the wise ones from everyone.”
Eyjólfur Fannar Scheving Jónsson

Normally, one of the first questions we ask upon introduction is, “what do you do?”. It’s a simple phrase, but I’d know exactly what you mean – what do you do to earn money, what is your job? This bypasses your hobbies, interests and passions … and focuses solely on what do you do to earn money. When you actually think about it, this is a strange first question. I have never met a person who is solely defined by their job. All people have interests and knowledge that stretch far beyond their “job”. More commonly, their paying career is something they do to get by, to earn money for their families or to save funds in order to do what they are actually interested in. So why do we feel the need to express our own identity and determine that of others based on job title?

This question is innocent enough – most of the time – but it can also divide people. It can suddenly place a person in a well-defined box that says what they are and aren’t capable of doing. Perhaps this sounds a bit dramatic, but I have seen it happen countless times in marine conservation. In fact, I think it structures our entire field.

I have personally and frequently witnessed a scientist determining someone’s ability to contribute valid information and knowledge based on job title and degree. I have seen people with non-scientific day jobs devote countless hours of their free and valuable time to marine conservation, only to receive a stinging “you should leave it to the experts” in return. I’ve heard fishers described as people who do not care about the ocean and know nothing about marine species – interesting comments considering most of them have spent the majority of their lives at sea (much more than most scientists).

There is a common belief in marine conservation that, to know what you are talking about, you need to be a scientist – but what does this actually mean? It’s murkier than it may appear on the surface. Despite the dictionary definition of scientist (a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences), I have heard a variety of definitions from people I have talked to. This definition has ranged from simply, ‘explorer’, to someone who MUST have a formal university education and actually analyze and publish data. Then comes the next problem – to be a scientist, do you have to be paid for your work? As many of you reading this blog may already know, it is very common to not be paid for marine or whale related work (another major, separate problem).

I, like most people, am frequently asked what I do, especially in workplace settings. Although I have been involved in the whale conservation field for around 8 years, I can count the number of times I have been officially paid on one finger – a position lasting for 2 months. So, when people ask me the dreaded question of ‘what do you do?’, I never know what to say. Do I say how I spend most of my time? Which would be doing something related to whales. OR do I say what I do to earn money? If I were to answer this question honestly, I would say I have been cleaning a nice family’s house for the past couple months. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but this honest answer may call my whale knowledge and experience as a scientist into question. I would risk my status as a ‘scientist’ in the eyes of many people, a superficial worry that has very real consequences.

It is clear that valuable knowledge is being missed and passions squashed because, as a society, we tend to label a person based on what they do, and labels are incredibly limiting. It is the action of classifying people that not only restricts the transfer and exchange of knowledge, but also causes individuals to stop trying to contribute and pursue interests in the first place. If we tell a fisher they do not know what a whale was feeding on because they do not hold a university degree, they are going to stop sharing information because they know it will be disregarded. We are limiting the potentials of so many because we have already defined them before even giving them the opportunity to show who they truly are, what they are truly capable of. We are stopping the conversation before it has even been had.

So how do we address this problem?

Perhaps the solution is not to expand the definition of who a person is or isn’t, but attempt not to seek a definition in the first place.

The next time you meet someone try not ask what it is that they do – try and ask something else. Ask instead what they do on the weekends, what they are passionate about or even what they dream of. This simple change could make a difference and assist in discovering the true core of a person, made-up of many different and important parts.

Understanding what people do for their career in many circumstances is important, but it should not be how we measure a person, and it certainly does not define who they are. A world where we judge one other, for whatever reason, whether based on profession, degree, economic status or otherwise, is a world where conversations will be missed. It is a world where we will become more and more separated and divided. It is a world where sharing knowledge and personal experience will be frowned upon. It is a world without trust.

The future of the ocean and planet does not have room to dismiss passion and knowledge. If we want any chance of creating a world where humans and the environment can live harmoniously together, we must end this limited definition of who a person is and is not. By accepting all facets of a person’s knowledge and experience, we can really strive towards the ultimate goal. This world and humans are very complex, let’s try not simplify what is beautifully complicated.

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