Right after college, I was playing a bazillion hours a week of volleyball to get on the pro tour, and reading a book a night to make up for the fact that I was tortured for eighteen years by having to read what other people told me to read. But when people asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in arbitrage.”
It's a good answer, right? I had choices: I could admit to reading like a crazy person. I could admit to trying to be in professional sports but not quite there, or I could give an answer that impressed everyone: I work in currency arbitrage. In reality, I was so incompetent at this job that when currencies went wild after the Berlin Wall fell, I lost a few million dollars for a few violent traders. The only possible reason to keep a dyslexic, literary, arbitrage clerk around was because she was good looking. But I wasn't good looking enough. I got fired.
Immediately I focused on getting on the pro volleyball tour. At that point, “What do you do?” questions did not get “I'm getting a job in a children's book store because I worked in the family book store for ten years and I can tell you the publisher of any author–quiz me.” Instead, I said, “I'm moving to Los Angeles to play professional beach volleyball.” To me, the book store was a step back to support volleyball, which was a step forward.
Describing my move to LA over and over again to prying relatives and concerned strangers actually made me believe it. How you answer the question “What do you do?” is important because it frames your story for you in a much more visceral way than it frames it for anyone else.
Recently, I had the problem again. I was sort of working at my startup, Brazen Careerist, but not really. The company got a new CEO and was moving to Washington, DC , and I was staying in Wisconsin and marrying the farmer.
“What do you do?” came up a lot because I was redecorating the farm house and traveling back and forth between DC and Madison and NY and Darlington. People in cities asked me what I was doing because clearly, I was not full-time at Brazen Careerist. And people in Darlington asked me because clearly I did not have a life in Darlington.
After trying out a lot of answers that came out poorly (like, I'm working at my company but not really) I came up with “I'm taking a few months off my job to decorate the house while I'm moving to the farm.”
It was a good answer. It was true, of course, but there are lots of true answers this type of question, and not all truthful answers are effective answers. It was a good answer because it reminded me that moving to the farm was a huge job. But also it made me realize that I had given myself an enormous education in interior design in a very short period of time.
I learned about color theory and practice from Maria Killam, who spent hours on the phone with me until I understood when orange on the fabric swatch will look red on a sofa (and why you should never do color on your wall without a consult from an expert).
I obsessively guarded against having anything in the house that did not have a use. All things had to be special and beautiful but nothing could be there only because it was special and beautiful.
When I told people I was decorating the house, they were happy for me. And worried for me. Because I am not going to make a living as a decorator. But the best answer to the question “What do you do?” is “Here's what I'm passionately learning right now.”
If I had answered in a way that focused on my worries about not knowing where my career was going, then there would have been nothing to talk about. But when I answered in a way that revealed my excitement about the house and everything I was learning, then there was a lot to talk about.
I tell you this to show that everyone has trouble answering the question at some points in their life, but the more comfortable we are being lost, the faster we can get unlost, and this is a good example of why—you can tell yourself better stories about yourself.
So here are some steps to help you get better at the process of answering the question “What do you do?”
1. Understand the question.
Assume there is no hidden, evil agenda. Assume the person asking simply wants to know more about you. Of course, only people who have a good answer to the question themselves end up asking the question of others, but still, it's a reasonable question.
2. Focus on a differentiator.
The problem with getting to know someone is that if you ask people, “What's important to you?” you won't learn anything. Because 90% of people will say things like family, friends, learning, being kind, or other routine things — the things, actually, that are on my refrigerator, in the first photo.
You get to know more about a person by asking how they spend their time. Because, while we all have similar goals (really, I bet the same few New Years Resolutions are made by 80% of all people) we all try to reach them in different ways.
This actually reminds me of the opening of Anna Karenina. “All happy families are the same, and each unhappy families is unhappy in different ways.” The modern version of that is “all goals for attaining a happy life are the same, but all the paths to not reaching those goals are misguided in different ways.”
So the question “What do you do?” is an attempt to find out what makes you different. Which means that everyone has an answer.
3. Don't focus on your job.
This is not a job interview—it's an attempt to get to know you so the person can connect with you. So you don't need to go straight to your job for an answer. Some people have a job that does define them. Some people do not. Once you realize you can go either way on this, you can come up with the best answer for you.
4. Focus on where you spend your time and energy.
If you work at Starbuck's to support your marathon training, you can say you're training for a marathon. That is interesting and will immediately spark a fine conversation. Plus, you show that you are someone worth getting to know—you set challenging goals for yourself and you work hard to meet them.
5. Focus on what you are learning.
A career is not an earning path, it's a learning path. So if you tell someone what you are learning about now, they will not actually care what your job is. What you choose to learn, and what interests you, actually says way more about you than the type of job you have. Some people learn a lot on their jobs, some people learn more away from their jobs. Where you learn is not as important as what you learn.
If you are not learning anything, and not doing anything special, ask yourself why. You can do anything in your free time. Make it matter.
6. Don't be defensive
Remember that people are asking to be kind. They are trying to create a connection so that you can talk to each other about things that matter to both of you. Surely that is appealing to you as well. So be helpful with your answer by being vulnerable and forthcoming instead of defensive.
7. Ask about the other person.
Sometimes we get so stressed answering the question that we forget to actually make conversation. Ask the other person what he or she does. Then find common ground. At work or at a cocktail party or talking to someone we wish we didn't have to talk to—being interested in both ourselves and in someone else is one of the most important things we can do.