You’ve been making small talk, cranking the conversation generator, and maybe it seemed to run for a minute or two but then it stuttered and stalled. You are standing talking to a complete stranger and the worst thing ever is about to happen: lurking at the end of the next sentence is a moment of unbearable, awkward silence. One or other of you will be called upon to do the inevitable, one of you is going to have to pull the cord. You take a sip of your drink, you survey the room. The silence has descended, as you knew it would. Then one of you asks: so, what do you do?
Even though I hate answering The Question, I am still guilty of asking it. It’s boring and unimaginative, but it’s also an indispensable conversational crutch. It’s also masochistic because it is a boomerang, a homing pigeon — once you have asked it, you set it on a path that will inexorably come back to focus its laser-like gaze on you.
The Question used to make me squirm a little, now it makes me squirm a lot. I now know there are two reasons people don’t like The Question.
The first is that they’d rather not be associated with how they make a living. Last year I had a good, solid answer to the Question: I’m a corporate lawyer, in the City, and you? But it still made me uncomfortable, I was always a bit embarrassed to admit I was a lawyer, a bit apologetic even. I look back and realise it was incredibly telling that I was never proud of my achievements in law, somehow it didn’t sit well with me.
If this is you then I cannot urge you strongly enough to investigate the source of your discomfort at being asked The Question, right now. Before it’s too late! (Jokes – it’s never too late.) (Until it is.)
But I’ve now discovered there’s another reason to avoid The Question. Whatever progress I have made in the last few months, things are even worse in the what-do-you-do department. I’m doing so many cool things, and feel like the world is so boundless and full of possibility. But there is only the thinnest of threads that could tie these projects and ideas together, and I don’t fit the profile of any of the projects individually. I feel like I have a collection of side-projects and no main project, possibly because I’m not being paid for any of them (although if you feel like paying me to write, redecorate, cook, consult or design then please, don’t be shy!).
These days, when asked The Question, I tend to say something bafflingly vague like “lots of different things”. This rarely satisfies the asker, and they root around for something more specific. I say “freelancer”. They want to know what kind of freelancer. At this point I usually look away, if I haven’t already, and mumble something like “writer”. This they know, this they can latch onto.
But it feels like a lie. I went to a dinner hosted by the amazing charity Headway last week and one of the volunteers asked me The Question. It seemed easiest to skip straight to “writer”, so I did. He was thrilled– he thought I might be able to help him find a ghost writer for his life-story about how he’d overdosed on cocaine, gone into a coma for 5 months, and all the funny stuff that had happened during the years of rehabilitation as had to learn how to walk and talk again. This sounds like an amazing story, and I felt like a fraud. I couldn’t help him.
I mean, I am writing, I am spending much of my days writing. But I don’t feel like I can adopt the label “writer”, or any other label for that matter. It doesn’t feel right. I imagine people with hobbies that they are far more dedicated to than their paying jobs will know something of this dilemma. I want to eschew labels altogether but the Question won’t allow it. I need to be able to say something. [Tim Ferriss, the 4-hour lifestyle guru, reportedly dealt with this problem by telling people he was a drug dealer. That would shut people up, I would imagine.]
Why do we ask each other “what do you do”?
It turns out that figuring out what the question actually means is the key to how to answer it. First, peeking under the hood of the question it appears to be two questions rolled into one. It is “what do you do with your time?” and “how do you make a living?”. Why do people care about either of these? I think there are at least 3 reasons:
- So they can locate you in their mental map of their network. They want to figure out if you are connected to them in any way, if you have any friends or acquaintances in common. What you do as a job is a great way to sort people into categories and check if you know any other people in that category that they may also know.
- In the hope of finding a conversation hook. If they know something about your job then they may be able to use that as a launching pad into other fruitful veins of conversation.
- To learn what’s possible. We are all just people bumbling around, trying to figure stuff out, so it’s natural that we’re interested in how other people are getting on, how other people go about solving the career conundrum. We ask people what they do so we can see what’s out there, what other people have discovered, and what works for them.
One reason that is notably absent from this list is that people don’t ask you what you do because they actually care what you do; they just want something to talk to you about. This turns out to be pretty important if, like me, the question makes you feel at all uncomfortable. Whether you are a lawyer, chef, teacher, designer, bus driver or stay at home parent, no one cares. I used to think it was a loaded question and now I realise, it’s just a regular question.
This is one of the things I took away from a great, if old post by Penelope Trunk, renowned career blogger in both senses of the word (she blogs for a career and she blogs about careers). In the post (see below) she gives tips on how to answer The Question and one is “don’t be defensive”. People ask what you do because they are genuinely curious, don’t assume they are judging your answer (and who cares if they are anyway?). This was a huge insight for me.
I’m trying to embrace this approach and just answer The Question. Part of this comes from not diminishing the things I’m working on. I may not feel like a “writer” but I am writing. I may not feel like a “blogger” but I am blogging. I need to start owning my projects and treating them like real things that I can be proud of.
To help with this I’m excited to announce a a new series on the blog called “Mish Mash Makes“. This will be a showcase of all the things I’m working on. This will allow you guys to see what a free workerbee gets up to but also hopefully help me recognise just how many cool projects I’m involved with right now, any one of which would make a good answer to that age-old Question.
I’ve shown you mine, now show me yours. What do you do? How do you answer The Question? Does it make you uncomfortable?
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Love links, hate distractions. Now that you’re done, here are some internet bits to put this article in context:
Find out more about the incredible work being done by Headway, the charity that works to improve life for people who have suffered from brain injuries.
Check out the blog of Tim Feriss’ Four Hour Workweek Blog – it’s a fantastic resource for anyone looking to pursue an alternative lifestyle or career.
Read Penelope Trunk’s thought-provoking article on her approach to answering The Question.