When someone asks me, “What does your husband do?”
I say, “I don’t know.”
This is not an answer our society is set up to deal with. It is not okay to have no idea what you want to do, let alone be married to someone with no idea. We have two kids, and I’ve noticed that the more responsibilities you have, the more unacceptable it is to have no idea what you’re doing.
But the truth is that my husband is trying to figure out what to do. He is an artist, and a former game producer, and a former a lot of things, but right now he is being a dad who wants to be a dad-slash-something but he can’t figure out what.
There is a lot of good advice about how to craft an answer to The Question. Pamela Slim, at Escape from Cubicle Nation has a classic post titled, So, what do you do for a living? about how to talk about your new entrepreneurial escapade while you are still working for your old employer. And Herminia Ibarraha, a professor at INSEAD, shows that if you talk about yourself how you want to be, then you will probably become that person. In both cases, the advice is to answer The Question by focusing on where you are going instead of where you are.
That is excellent advice, for everyone who knows where they are going. But how do you craft an answer if you have no idea where you are headed?
I know my husband is not alone in the world because I do a lot of career coaching for very smart, talented, ambitious people, and many have no idea what they want to do with themselves. Ten years ago, if you didn’t know what you were doing, the typical response would be, “I’m consulting.” Today, you don’t need to do that. It’s okay to be lost.
For people under 30, feeling lost is de rigueur. But if you’re over thirty, it’s okay too, if you believe it’s okay. The first step is to respect the fact that you are in transition and that transition is part of normal life. In fact, with the right attitude, coping with uncertainty can be a positive experience.
The important thing is to be honest about it. If you hedge, and look embarrassed, ashamed or evasive, you will look bad answering The Question. But if you look someone in the eye and say, “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out,” it’s reasonable to trust that people will respect you. They will ask you about your process for figuring things out. Maybe they’ll say, “What have you done in the past?” or maybe “What are you thinking about doing?” These are not personal attacks. They are genuine curiosity because we are all fascinated by the process of self-discovery — it’s the basis of our whole literary canon, after all.