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Four years ago, when I was just starting my freelance career, I wrote an essay for BlogHer about why “What do you do?” is a problematic question. In my essay I offered suggestions for questions people can ask instead of “What do you do?” I wanted to make it easier for those of us with unconventional careers to feel validated. When you meet someone new, I advised, ask them about where they are from or what they like to do for fun. Ask them how they know the host or hostess of the gathering you are at. Ask them about anything besides work.
I know it’s shocking, but the whole world did not read my essay, and people still ask me all the time “So, what do you do?”
After years of pondering this question, researching how other people identify their careers, and tweaking my own response, here’s what I’ve learned.
People are always going to ask you about your work/career/life purpose.
So it’s better to have an answer prepared than to get defensive that the question was asked in the first place.
Most people come from a place of good intentions when they ask you “What do you do?”
There will always be a few people who ask “What do you do?” because they want to network aggressively or feel better about their own career by comparing themselves to you. But most people are asking this question because they are genuinely curious about you, or they don’t know a better way to engage in small talk. Assume that people ask this question with a good heart and not because they want to make you feel bad about yourself.
Many people struggle to answer “What do you do?”
When I started delving into research on career and identity I was pleasantly surprised by how many successful and fulfilled people struggle to label their career. In her world famous TED Talk, author and researcher Dr. Brene Brown tells how she tried to describe herself as a researcher/storyteller for her bio for a speaking event. The woman who was writing the bio laughed and said “There’s no such thing!” In the book One Person/Multiple Careers, author Marci Alboher describes some of the famous historical figures, such as Leonardo da Vinci (artist/inventor) and Benjamin Franklin (publisher/writer/politician) who could not fit their career into a neat box. If you don’t have an easy answer to the question “What do you do?” just know that you’re not alone.
Have a stock answer prepared.
People are going to ask you about your work and career, so consider preparing a stock answer. Here a few options.
- Answer the question literally. Instead of naming your title or position, describe what you do. For example, I would say “I write curriculum for education companies and help people get started with freelance careers.”
- List all of your career identities. If you’re career does not fit into a single category, don’t force it to. Name all of the careers you identify with. For example, I could say “I blog about careers, and I’m a freelance education writer.”
- Say “it’s complicated.” In her book Rising Strong, Brene Brown writes that she sometimes answers “What do you do?” with “It’s complicated, how much time do you have?” Keep in mind that this is only a good answer if you actually have the time and energy to talk about your work.
It helps to be curious about others.
If you’re feeling deflated about work, you can easily deflect the conversation about “What do you do?” by asking the other person about his or her interests, hobbies, recommended reading lists or favorite television shows. And if you are the type of person who can easily describe your career with a crisp sound bite, keep in mind that other people might not be as confident when talking about their work. Be curious and ask questions. For many of us, our career is not the most interesting part of our identity or our life, but we have plenty of exotic experiences and thought-provoking opinions we could share.
What about you? How do you answer the question “What do you do?”
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