You are What You Do (or are you?)

I hate it when one of the first questions someone I just met asks me is, “What do  you do?” And I also hate that this is usually one of the first things I ask when making polite conversation with a stranger.

I’m trying to get myself away from this habit. It really is a habit. Ingrained. Because we’re taught to believe that what we do is who we are.

For some people, this is true. These people LOVE what they do and absolutely see it as part of their identity. And that’s fantastic! But for those of us who are not quite there yet (or never will be), the question can sting a bit.

It’s definitely at least in part an insecurity thing. I don’t want to be judged by the fact that I have a job that doesn’t necessarily reflect my ambition, potential or education. I used to be able to say, “I’m a student. I’m getting a Master’s degree.” Now if I divulge that bit it’s like, “ok, well, Ms. M.A., what happened there?”

Maybe one day I will have a job (or a career) that reflects who I feel I am–abilities, passions and all that. But in the meantime, how do we deal with this question?

Some possibilities…

There’s the aspirational route:

“I am working on …..(fill in the blank with impressive career aspiration)….”

Or the self-deprecating humor route:

“Oh you know, I’m woefully underemployed and spend the rest of my time picking up my dog’s shit and dreaming about Rafael Nadal‘s arms.”

Rafa’s arms, killing it at the French Open, from

Or there’s the change the question route, where you basically ignore the spirit of the question and answer how you’d like:

“I love to read, hang out with my husband and dog watching ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and recently I’ve been exploring continental cuisine with a headlong dive into Julia Child’s ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.'”

Who wouldn’t want to hang out with this happy guy?!


But it’s not just the insecurity of being underemployed at the moment that bothers me. It’s also the prevalence of this thinking–this compulsion to be defined by our job or career (and to define others in these terms). We are much more complex than that. So many people do meaningful, important things outside of their work. And sometimes these meaningful accomplishments are as simple as how well you love your family. Simple, but no less profound than the guy who advocates for world peace.

I know that the most interesting thing about you is probably not your job (unless you’re something insanely cool, like a roller coaster tester or a that guy who won the contest to be caretaker of an island in Australia).

So I’d rather ask questions that actually tell me something about you like, “What is the most important thing in your life?” or “If you could do or be anything, what would it be?” or “What makes you so g*ddamn special” (see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). But it’s disarming, and therefore considered rude, to skip the conventions of conversation.

For now, as a more viable, less confrontational solution, I’m trying my best to create a new definition for myself so that I am prepared with an answer I feel happy with. I am also trying to be a more creative conversationalist so that I don’t have to cringe every time I find myself asking the mundane, “so, what do you do…”

Have you noticed this as well? Other suggestions for how to answer?

23 responses to “You are What You Do (or are you?)

  1. Pingback: Mo’ Passions, Mo’ Problems « the self-styled life·

  2. My mom’s favorite answer is “When I grow up, I want to be a clown!” (She’s 56.)

    That usually leaves people wondering whether she’s serious or just funny and they awkwardly move on to other topics. 😉 LOL

    Great blog, by the way. I just found it today.

  3. Jean,
    Please recall that the whole world is still reeling from the collapse of the subprime mortgage bond market here in the USA. You have gainful employment. Many don’t. Forgive me, but you did sound a little whiney. Do your employers know how you feel about your job? So, while you’re searching for that right position, I’m certain you’re giving your all because that’s who you are, 100% or nothing. And, if that right position takes a very long time to come along (I waited 24 years for mine), you can always acquire new skills more suited to available jobs. Knowing you, I think you’ll more than likely create your own occupation and find lots of people to pay you to do it. So, yes. You are what you do. And, in your case, that’s quite a lot.

    • Eee whiny is definitely not what I was going for, so thank you for the head’s up. I am definitely grateful for my current job and do try my best to do it well. Certainly, I don’t express that often here but my employers do know that this isn’t my dream job. Nevertheless, I do generally feel that there’s nothing wrong with having “just” a job to pay the bills if you find enough “life satisfaction” outside of work.
      I agree that in a general sense we are indeed what we do, but I wish we would put more value on things that we might do outside of work. I think the tendency to define people in terms of job/career title is convenient, but can be problematic and frustrating for people who don’t base their own worth on their job.
      Anyway, thank you for your encouragement. (I just revised my punctuation–that period had been an exclamation point, but I figured you already know how much I appreciate your advice, making the exclamation point superfluous 😉

      • It’s ok to dislike your job, in fact, it’s ok to hate it. It’s where we spend over half our waking life, so being happy or unhappy there is very important.

        Once, I was an accountant. Then, I was a college instructor. Now, I am a glorified secretary and I work for folks who don’t always treat me very well.

        So, I appreciate my salary. I am thankful for my benefits. But I am embarassed by my job title, and I dislike my job. Doesn’t make any of us whiny, I don’t think?

        I have been involved with animal rescue for 3 years and over 2 years ago, I started my own because I wanted to rescue the animals other rescues were leaving behind – the old, the sick…the expensive to medically treat. I am learning to tell people who ask what I ‘do’ that I am president of a dog rescue. It’s not my source of income, but it is my life.

        Like you, I would love it if we asked each other more insightful questions. I love it in the movie “Tombstone” when Wyatt Earp meets Josephine and she asks him if he’s happy and what he wants out of life. Also I love your Ferris Beuller reference!

        Keep up the good work!!!

        • Thanks for your thoughts! I’m sorry you don’t like your job very much! It’s definitely difficult to find that balance–I think some people are content to have a job strictly as a source of income, but because we do spend so much time there as you say, others of us won’t be happy in that situation.

          I think it’s awesome that you have created something you are passionate about (and it’s a great cause). I definitely think it’s appropriate and right to let that be your answer to “what do you do.” It’s a fantastic solution for people whose important and meaningful work may not be what pays the bills. I am working on that myself. I’ve actually been thinking about creating a business card and have been grappling over what to put on it for things like job title, etc. But it was freeing when I decided that I was allowed to create my own personal definition!

          Good luck to you!

  4. I beleive that you can answer what you do. Often we get caught up in providing the title we hold instead of saying what it is we actually do. You can say, I inspire others by blogging, I help develop children by volunteering with company X.

    We really get caught in the titles. I speak a lot about this on my blog, but I am determined to create a language that defines who I am. I am sure that I will be better branded for it.

    • I agree! Titles can be a huge distraction. It reminds me of the office when Dwight was always trying to call himself “assistant general manager” feeling it sounded more important than his actual title “assistant TO the general manager.”
      Right now on Facebook I’m actually “therapeutic promotional consultant” with my friend’s name as the company-the title we jokingly made up because I was giving her advice when she started her PhD. 😛
      Thanks for commenting!

  5. I usually keep it really vague and say, I do policy research, and then point behind the person asking and yell hey, look at that cool bird!

    • Yeah, being vague is definitely an effective option. You can throw words around like consultant, analyst, feelancer and just figure that they’ll be boring enough to deter people from asking further questions 😉

  6. I often notice this,too, and I also hate it! In military life, even more often than “what do you do?”, you get asked “what does your husband do?” It’s infuriating and paternalistic.

    I think you hit the nail on the head–people ask you what you do, or what your husband does, so they can “peg” you (define you). I don’t think the annoyance at the question will disappear once you lose the insecurity. I love my job (currently, professor), I am proud of my education (JD/MBA), and I still buck at the notion that I can be categorized so easily by what I do to make money. Also, just wait until you have your “impressive” career and see what your reaction is when someone stops viewing you as the little wife and begins to include you in the conversation strictly due to your occupation. It’s almost even more distasteful.

    I can’t think of a good alternative. To make small talk, I usually ask a person if she has seen any good movies lately or read any good books.

    Perhaps you should begin making up careers, that is another route.

    As a style note, I love the way you bold out important phrases. Your clustering of text and perfect length of posts makes your blog easy to read. The observational, witty subject matter and style make it interesting. 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback-I really appreciate it! It’s nice to know that everything reads well outside of my own head.

      The books/movies question is a good option. I also just heard about this awesome site which asks what you’d try to take if your house was burning. They call it the perfect question to ask to learn a lot about someone in one go. Interesting concept…

      I can imagine that as a “military wife” you’d get put into a very specific box. I guess it’ll always be a struggle to overcome the labels other people put on us!

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  7. I totally agree. I also think it’s a vicious cycle – when it’s the first thing anyone asks about you and you ask about everything, it creates the illusion that your job IS the most important thing and it gets harder to think of non-job things that are important to you.

    Generally, I don’t mind being asked because I like my job and think it’s cool… but there is always the person who asks, when I say I work at the State Department, “oh, what state?” … and then I feel awkward explaining what it is.

    • Haha, that person should feel awkward…
      Yeah, it’s easy to quickly get wrapped into the job discussions and have that dominate the conversation. Again, I think we’re kind of programmed that way a bit. Maybe we all need more hobbies!

  8. Funny, after we come home from a social outing I ask my husband “So what does so-and-so do?” My husband never knows. According to him, guys don’t talk about that. My guy is 60 and counting. However, guilty…I do wonder…sorry, but I do.

    • Haha, that’s funny about the husband. I could definitely see there being a difference between men and women on that one. And no worries–I do think it’s natural to wonder what people do for work, because most of us spend so much of our time working. I might love being asked one day when I do something awesome!

  9. Great post! I totally agree with you on this! I used to love being asked “what do you do”, when I was in university and had all these aspirations of what I wanted to be (you know – famous, successful, rich or the discoveror of something profound! lol) However, I don’t care for the question anymore, because where I am (career wise) isn’t quite where I’d like to be! Now, when I am asked the question I cringe(inwardly), and then take the “aspirational route”. It’s a way of telling people that my job doesn’t define who I am (or a job doesn’t neccessarily have to define who you are, in general)!

    • Yeah, I think it’s very tough for people in and around our “young adult” age, especially given the economic circumstances. I think many of us, despite our greater hopes and dreams, aren’t quite there yet and it’s a hard thing to come to terms with. I think the aspirational route is a good one!

  10. Completely agree. Even though I have the easy out of saying I’m finishing my PhD, I’m hesitant to tell people because it can come off as condensing or that I only want to talk about intelligent stuff. In reality I’m quite the opposite, lets talk about Kim Kardashian’s ring or tell me a stupid bathroom humor joke – way more entertaining.

    • Haha yes. My Master’s degree (in public policy and public administration) is a bit of a mouthful, too, and I always had to explain what it was. I agree, let’s talk about K.Kardashian’s ring–that thing is huge!!! 😉

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