“So, what do you do?”

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I met someone recently and attempted to do that small talk thing, which, as an introvert, I generally find as pleasant as a paper cut to the eyeball. But just when I was expecting that boring old “So, what to you do?” question  – she shocked me by asking me how I “spent my time.”

I loved that. That had such a sense of depth to it. Because none of us need to be defined by our jobs.

Since bailing on my acting career and starting over, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been an animal shelter volunteer, voracious reader, homemaker, student, yogi, wife, blogger, dog mom, bills manager and a quilter of quilts for all my friend’s babies.

But none of those really fits what people are looking for when they meet you at a party and ask what you “do” – they want to know what you get paid for, it’s become a short hand for easy categorization. It’s all about money and striving and external perceptions of success.

I’ve always found it an uncomfortable question. When I was an actor, that answer tended to take the entire conversation hostage, and instead of being able to quietly listen to someone else, I’d have to say for the 764th time that yes, Mrs. Doubtfire was fun to film. Then, when I became a writer, the answer didn’t get any easier, because I didn’t feel like I was allowed to say that I was a writer. Often, creative jobs don’t come with official credentials. Claiming to be an artist is sometimes greeted by a head tilt and an eyebrow raise that might be an appropriate response to a toddler claiming to be a seahorse.

Even for those who have more traditional jobs, titles hardly tell the whole story. My husband’s job in marketing doesn’t communicate his soft spot for iambic pentameter or his devoted yoga practice. So why do we often tend to start, and stop, with that one limiting question?

All my life I’ve wanted to contort myself, Cirque du Soleil-style, into a neat box that is easily labeled and categorized. I’m now beginning to wonder why such a restrictive confinement and sharp corners look so attractive to me. Because in truth, all the various ways that I “spend my time” now, make me feel like I am making a more significant contribution to the world than my old acting gig that came with the paycheck and the prestige.

When did contribution to the world become only measured in dollars? Why do we think we understand someone if they say that they are an interpretive dancer or a construction worker or a banker? Their job might tell us something superficial about them, but isn’t it more meaningful to know that they they raised foster kids or speak Italian or won a Frisbee golf championship?

Maybe your job is your passion. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it fulfills you, maybe it doesn’t. A job is merely one aspect of a person. You can live a meaningful life, one full of passion and purpose, even if your job is less than ideal. There is so much more to life than work and it doesn’t have to define who you are.

Even though I absolutely love what I do, being a writer is not the whole story of who I am and what my life is about. When I was an actor, I let that job define my entire identity – and that didn’t go that well for me. I’m trying to do it differently this time.

So, this is just a sincere thank you to those who do not define another’s worth by what they fill out on their tax form. And a gentle reminder to myself that asking someone what they “do” might not be reflective of their entire being.

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37 thoughts on ““So, what do you do?”

  1. What a great post! I hate answering “what I do” because in reality my paying job is in no way reflective of WHO I really am. I will have to be careful asking that question myself. ” What interests you?” Is a better question to ask if you truly what to learn about a person. Great post!

  2. Great post. Always hated that question. So hard for folks who do a lot of different things. I usually pick the answer that’s more closely related to what I actually like doing.

  3. I hate when people ask me “what are you?”. If I say I’m a secretary that’s not true, that’s only my job. If I say I’m a publicist, that’s not true, either, because I don’t get paid for it, so I guess I prefer to answer what I do (and I can talk about my job and other activities).

    Anyway, my favourite part of the post is “I met someone recently and attempted to do that small talk thing, which, as an introvert, I generally find as pleasant as a paper cut to the eyeball.” I totally relate.

  4. Finally I see an article on this ‘what do you do” question. I am not quite a fan too. Think about explaining my job as a Biotechnologist, that’s like taking a trip to the Lab everywhere and every time. Sometimes, I really just want to breath ah!

    Great post Lisa.

  5. Fantastic post. I can relate to the “paper cuts on your eyeballs” comment. I saw this in several ways. Where I do work, my duties fall into multiple different categories. This has lead to many uncomfortable conversations when someone inevitably asks the “what do you do” question. Being an introvert also, the question usually leads to a bunch of false starts and stammering as I try to give a concise answer to something that is not. I love the change in tone of the question when it becomes “how do you spend your time.” Your points are well taken that we are not defined by what we do to achieve a paycheck. Thank you for this.

  6. This is great. I too hate that question. I ask them how long they have and then they usually skip to the next question.

  7. I always used to try and avoid the “papercuts on the eyeballs” by not making eye contact at all. Even now, when I am a little better at small talk – though I still see it as a superficial, insincere manner of communicating for the very reasons you state – I am not good at the eye contact. You are right creative endeavors are hard to explain to most people. If I am out taking photographs (honing my composition, looking for that unique shot of a flower or dewdrop, learning more about lighting, etc.) I have to say I am hiking, because exercise is easier for people to understand. Plus, I am not a “professional” photographer – they have bigger lenses. If I am reading or writing or learning something new….I tend to keep that a secret…..it’s too much fun and people can’t know I am having fun, right??

  8. Oh gosh. The dreaded question. You’re around the Virginia area. Ma be not as close to DC as I am, but this question is pervasive in every single conversation in this area. Mostly because everyone wants to know if you work for the government and if you can get them a job. What’s worse is when they find out you’re in HR, like me. They can get down right invasive with job seeking queries. Then I once read something that said when asked that question you should telook people what you want to be. So I started telling everyone I was a writer. That almost helped until the inevitable, what books have you published? None? Oh, you’re not a real writer…

    Damn, now what do I tell people? I stick with writer and they can just deal with it.

    Also, ten cool points awarded to Lisa for mentioning frisbee golf, an obscure, but totally awesome game that I love.

  9. my small talk go to is “what’s the funnest thing you experienced today?” way more interesting to me 😉

    thanks for the post!

  10. Thanks Lisa; this is great. I work with students and have found myself repeating the same questions upon every interaction. “How was school today?” “Have any tests/games/concerts coming up?” I felt like I was predefining them by their lives as students and wasn’t developing deeper connection. Just tonight I tried a new question: “What are you thinking about today?” This led to a half hour conversation that had real meaning. I saw sides of this kid I rarely see. I like “How did you spend your time today,” as well.

  11. Amen to this! Good grief, I’ve been trying to quietly make this point for years. I keep telling people that my job is not a reflection of me (for some people it is, and that’s awesome. Most of us don’t get to make a profession out of our passion), and that I don’t wander because I can’t find an interest…it’s because SO MANY THINGS interest me, and I have no idea where to land! 🙂 People don’t “get it,” but at least they smile at me like I’m a slow child.

  12. Once, while on a cruise, I decided I would spend the week not telling people I work in pest control when they ask what I do for a living. I would answer, “I’m a writer.” Because I am. I just don’t happen to get paid for it yet. A fellow in the hot tub next to me (nothing weird; totally normal) asked me what my job was and I told him I’m a novelist. He became very excited, telling me that yes, writers can make it, and his parents didn’t know anything and he didn’t need to go to college he could just write and go on cruises and travel and, and…and, well, yeah: ended up telling him my little cruise wasn’t technically paid for by writing. It was paid for by mice, spiders, ants, and Capital One. It’s hard to just be a writer. Really, really hard.

  13. I love this post! Whenever I say I design children’s magazines, it initially sounds quite exciting! When people probe further into “Oh! So you draw the cartoons?” “Err, unfortunately no. We have all that on disc and design the pages using the images.” “Oh right…So you don’t write or draw the cartoons in the magazine?” “Err, no. In essence I just put things on pages…” They never look as excited by the end of the conversation haha!! 🙂

  14. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve technically been “out of work” for two years. Searching for that elusive admin/marketing job, getting lots of interviews but never quite getting across the line. Have battled anxiety, self-doubt and depression but I’m coming out of it and things are turning around. I’m so longer ashamed to say that “I write” and suddenly opportunities are opening up to me. Thank you. I love your writing!

  15. Lisa, I think what you said here is quite true. A job’s a job, I think people tend to be more complex than that though, as we all wear many hats. And you like you said, maybe some folks are fortunate enough to work at their passion and be paid for it, and that’s great. However, not everyone has that opportunity in life, and so they are forced to do what they can to provide for their families. And although there are those lucky enough to work at what they love, it usually is not all that they are passionate about. I need to adopt asking “How do you spend your time?” for when I meet folks I don’t know. I think it’s less rude than asking someone what they do for a living, especially since that sounds similar to asking someone what they make for a living. Very thoughtful post.

  16. Hi Lisa, though one of those mid-revision Google connect-the-dots, I found your Blog. I love your writing! I have read several posts that all speak to me, but this one did the most. From a fellow writer, thanks for putting your truth out there and articulating it so well!

  17. I must say I’m impressed. By you as a writer. By you as a person (from what I can tell from your introspective writing). I am particularly impressed by those who grew up in the movie/entertainment business and are still reasonably normal (wharever that is), decent, well-adjusted, non self-absorbed people, whether they chose to stay in the industry or not. It obviously destroys so many who chase after the illusion it presents. Kudos to you & those in your life who helped you stay that way. I agree completely that “what you do” doesn’t define “who you are”. I did enjoy your parts in the movies I saw you in. I hope you have discovered the positive parts of you that experience brought you and contributed to who you are, as well as your other life experiences.

    You are obviously a gifted, caring person. I have enjoyed reading your blog and wish you & your family all the richness life can bring.

  18. I’ve read that it is a pretty exclusively American thing to ask that question: “what do you do [for a living]?”. Though as an Asian-American, I also get the “where are you from?” question where answering “Baltimore, MD” is not the answer they’re looking for :-/

  19. A simple thanks for sharing your thoughts on becoming a writer. I’ve always had an interest in how people become or choose the work that they do. I too have struggled with the fact that I truly want to write as a profession. I started a blog and only have one follower. So really it’s not about fame or fortune. At this juncture, I need to make a living and develop my craft. I am starting out with copywriting because I’ve lacked structure & it’s really not about creativity. I hesitated to read your blog as I am turned off by people who do not live the average life. Of course I need to learn to see people regardless of status and understand the struggles of others in full spectrum. I appreciate your courage and the fact that we are not that all different in our quests for meaning and what it is we should be doing as our lives unfold. Kudos to you for stripping yourself of what may have been other people’s expectations.

  20. You nailed it! There’s an old joke I once heard about people who live on the west coast of Canada and those near Toronto. When you ask a person near Toronto ‘what they do’ they give you their occupation. But when you ask a person on the west coast, they give you their hobby or their passion. We need to share more passions. Thanks again for posting your thoughts. I’ll pass it on. Cheers Joe.

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