Answering the question ‘What do you do?’


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.

18 replies
  1. Anonym
    Anonym says:

    “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.”

    That is exactly why the USA would go the way of the dodo (or, the way of the USSR) as far as leading the world is concerned.

    Fat + uncertain = no future

  2. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    My favorite response to this question was to tell people, “Actually, I’m an unemployed bum.”

    And then in the stunned silence, “But I’m also thinking about starting a company.”

  3. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Botn Ben and Chris, I think, are actually writing the same thing — about how disappointing a question it is. It reduces someone to being what their work is. I’m in complete agreement.

    The problem is that asking the question is a big part of how our culture works. So,you can give a non-social answer (like Chris’s) to remind people of how disappointing the question is. Or, you can answer it because when people ask they are usually, on some level, just trying to make a connection with you. (I like Ben’s post on this — link above.)

    I am a fan of answering the question the best you can even though it is disappoiting. It’s another opportunity to make a connection. If we only connected with people who only asked us perfect questions we’d have no connections.

  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    Yes, I hate that question too, but some of the discomfort is due to the assumption that all they are asking is what your job status is. Another approach is to consider it a broader question, not just assume what the person means is limited to “what is your job?” and answer with what you are currently most excited about doing in your life. But you still need a pitch ready–otherwise people will think you are a dork when you don’t “play along” and provide the expected response.

  5. Emily
    Emily says:

    I agree that presenting what you’d like to be doing helps get you there mentally, though it’s not quite that simple.

    Re. social acceptability – it’s tough when the people you’d like to network with are firmly planted in cube world, the federal government kind in particular. I’ve found people’s reactions to my leaving my cushy job to explore writing/consulting and music (both creative pursuits) is colored by their own fear of taking a risk, leaving behind health insurance and pension, etc. The other part of their reaction – and this could be my own insecurity, but I don’t think so – seems to be that I’m a flake.

  6. Dale Harris
    Dale Harris says:

    I loved this post! I often feel that pang of indecision/indigestion:) when asked, but I feel that I have no acceptable answer. Do I say that I keep stats for a dept. at a university (boring… and not what I want to do) or do I say that I am a children’s board game creator and producer – also not an acceptable answer as I found out a few months ago when I told a family “friend” of my side business. His response was, “Do you really think that’s a feasible proposition?” I’ve hated him ever since:)
    Pamela Slim’s post titled, “So, what do you do for a living?” is great! I will structure my responds in that fashion alot more in the future, and to heck with the doubters. My only warning is beware of and PREPARED FOR those who do not appreciate you or your choice, it makes for an uncomfortable silence afterwards if you are judged negatively and aren’t ready to respond.


    P.S. To the anonym individual above who wrote, “That is exactly why the USA would go the way of the dodo (or, the way of the USSR) as far as leading the world is concerned. Fat + uncertain = no future.” You’ve got it all wrong, the willingness admit and to explore one’s areas of uncertainty/new horizons are precisely why the USA is strong. The USSR was exactly the opposite as is Cuba under Castro, but it’s also one reason China is reinventing itself.

  7. Mary
    Mary says:

    I am always asking “What do you do” or “What does your partner do” because I am hoping to form a connection with that person. I would be delighted if someone said “I don’t know, but I’m interested in learning everything I can about leading theories in consciousness.” or Indian cooking or starting my own business–

    I think people ask the question because they want to find out commonalities. I’ve always wished people would wear T-shirts listing 3 to 5 ideas that intrigue them, or their favorite hobbies–because it would be so much easier to talk about what matters rather building from rote answers to rote questions.

  8. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    What great comments! Thank you everyone.

    Emily makes a point that I wish I had thought to make — after you answer The Question, the person’s response has more to do with who they are than with who you are.

  9. Cara
    Cara says:

    I need to burn Penelope’s latest comment into my brain so I don’t lose my nerve when I make the career leap into the unknown. Thank you!

  10. Miranda
    Miranda says:

    Hi Penelope:

    Emily’s comment reminds me of one particular example from my own experience:

    A few years ago, I was invited to a longtime friend (now more of an acquaintance)’s engagement party. Most of the men and women there were solidly career-track lawyers and politicos. One charming guest asked me what I “was”. I often find that “civilians” find my vocation a refreshing change from the norm. And yet, when I replied, “An actor”, my new friend had the good manners to ask me if I “could make [my]living at that”.

    I stammered “No” and then, embarrassed, felt compelled to reveal my day job as proof of… something.

    The guy was a boor, but from him I learned the value of a little dress rehearsal for your cocktail party chatter. Next time, I will say No, and smile.

    Thanks for your great blog,

  11. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    great post – some thoughts:

    1. The problem I had was that I was the General Manager of a software company, and loved being the GM. But when I got laid off, the what do you do became “I’m looking for a job/I’m unemployed/I don’t work”… not only was it wierd but “what do you do” became “who are you”. I’ve since realized that you can’t association yourself (or your self worth) to your JOB TITLE!

    2. You can twist your response based on company “I work at XYZ…”, title “I am a GM…”, project “I’m working on designing a new…”, specialty “I’m a blogger/speaker, etc….”… I think that different situations require different responses – and you should be prepared for various responses.

    I love Miranda’s actor story – I think that this is what she wants to do, what she is passionate about, and really how she wants to identify herself. The question “can you make a living doing it” and “is this who you are” are really 2 different questions – I think that Miranda has nothing to be ashamed of. Didn’t ol’ Harrison Ford work as a custodian before the Star Wars gig????? Do you think he said “I’m a janitor” or “I’m an actor”??? Go Miranda!!!

  12. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    When I quit teaching but still received a paycheck during the subsequent summer, I told people I was a SOCIALITE and left it at that. In truth, all I did that summer was go out, lay by the beach, work out, and travel, so I really felt like a socialite. I was moving in the fall, and I didn’t plan on looking for a job until I was in the new city.

    But you wouldn’t believe how uncomfortable some people were with my answer! It was like they were offended that someone would willfully not work and be happy about it. Or maybe they were so jealous that it made them angry.

    Some would probe me for more information about what I used to do and others were obsessed with finding out what I wanted to do in the future. What I really wanted to do in the future was continue to not work and get paid for it, but I didn’t like to spoil my illusion of being a socialite with details of my professional past and future. I just wanted to enjoy my summer of freedom!

    • Suzie
      Suzie says:

      I know this post is very old, but when I read that Charlie described himself/herself as a socialite, I wondered if a socialite would really describe themselves as a socialite…which may be the reason for the reactions. Anyway, here is a lik that provides directions on how to become a socialite:

      You can learn how to be/do anything on the internet!!!

  13. Mike
    Mike says:

    I always reply by saying, “I do lunch.” It’s true and it usually gets the point across. The what do you do question is generally considered in poor taste where I come from. Parvenus are notorious for it because they feel they have something to prove–tacky tacky.

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