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 Steampunk styling from hundreds of hours on the Internet. I absolutely fell in love with the idea of repurposing old things for new things, and seeing old in a new way.

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.

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  1. Gib Wallis
    Gib Wallis says:

    I can’t decide which I loved more, this post or the photos! Penelope, the photos were especially great because we’ve been reading about your love of steampunk and you’ve linked to visual reference points from movies, but now we can see your own particular take on it.

    On the American idea of you are what you do, I have to disagree respectfully. Especially because your own post sort of guides people to be liberal in interpreting how to answer the question.

    I live in Los Angeles, and if you remember from your soujourn here, people follow up many possible, valid and interesting responses to “What do you do” with the even more direct, “How do you make a living?”

    In other cultures, I think, the equivalent question is more open ended. In Spanish, it’s “¿A que te dedicas?” which uses the verb dedicar, which is like dedicating or devoting. So the “What do you do?” has echoes of “what do you devote yourself to?” or “how do you spend your time?” People can either answer with an occupation or a passion, and it’s unheard of to press people for justifying their lifestyle by a description of their income.

    A friend of mine who’s a screenwriter and hot babe, really hated the question here in LA and its follow-up and so she started lying to pushy people. She’d answer, “I teach philosophy at UCLA.” She actually studied philosophy for undergrad, so she could BS well enough.

    I guess what I’m saying is that answering the question is fine and I love your suggestions, but sometimes the querent needs just as much coaching on how not to ask the question (or follow-up) as people need coaching on how to answer it.

  2. Miven Trageser
    Miven Trageser says:

    I find the question “what line of work are you in?” to be a good substitute. It passes for ‘what do you do?’ in professional contexts, but in a gentle way. It allows the person to direct the energy to what they want to discuss, and signals to them that you do not want the “what job do you hold?” answer.

  3. Rebecca Gonzalez
    Rebecca Gonzalez says:

    Timing is so funny. I literally sat down at my computer and read this after a 10 minute conversation with my husband about what I should say at this meeting I always go to where they do networking at the start of the meeting. The topic is “say something memorable about yourself.” The meeting host’s example is that he is the father of uninstall (Google it). So what is memorable about me? I couldn’t think of a thing. But what am I passionate about today? New angle entirely.

  4. LizzieBeth
    LizzieBeth says:

    I agree with Shefaly. Not everyone asks because they are interested in learning about you. I’ve found most people I run acroos ask for exactly the reasons Shefaly stated. I work from home. For 30 years I’ve been self employed. I earn money by being creative. To a few of my husband’s peers (in the field of science) that is code for “no work ethic,” and “lazy.” One particular peron asks me every single time I’m forced to see her, “have you been working lately?” Sure I have, but not with set hours and not away from home. I don’t even answer her any longer as I don’t want to come across as being defensive when in reality, she is just a jerk. Based on my experience, I think most people in the corporate world don’t give people like me much credit. And I also think by pointing it out over and over again it makes them feel superior.

  5. Liz Haven
    Liz Haven says:

    I am an undergraduate and this question is asked to me one way or another every day. I guess I get the question “What do you want to do?” a lot, but it is the same idea. I often feel defensive and pressured. Thank you for this advice.

  6. The Bridge
    The Bridge says:

    Thank you for this. I just quit my job 3 months ago to pursue a writing career. And just like cake batter – it’s a blobby mess at this point but I think things are going to rise soon. But people want to see the cake and eat the cake – not watch it bake. So when people ask me what I do, I tell them I have been volunteering while I’m working on baking my cake. My cryptic answer is good for me, but not for my friends, who have started to send me baby clothes. Perhaps I’ll work on a better answer for me and the sake of future conversations. :)

  7. Sue Reddel
    Sue Reddel says:

    Great post Penelope. When I first left my corporate job two years ago and people asked me what I did it made me sweat. Now when people ask me I tell them I do a lot of things. First I get a weird look and then – after I rattle off that I’m teaching grads students about internet marketing at a university, running a consulting business and co-founder of a start-up they say,” wow, you must be busy.” To which I say, I am, but I’m very happy. Once they hear about the start-up they immediately take over the conversation with how they love to travel, or eat, or drink wine – then I sit back and listen :)

  8. Sylvanus
    Sylvanus says:

    I went to a party last week, and someone asked me, “What do you do?” I told him the truth. I said, “I don’t do anything. I watch sports all day.” Then I went about telling him about this really cool streaming website I found where I can pretty much watch any sport I want and listed all the sports I’ve been following (soccer, premier league, German, Spanish league, Italian, Greece, Turkish, whatever…as long as it’s soccer; football; cricket; basketball — even the Russian and Chinese leagues — tennis; hockey; etc.) and the schedules of the matches I wanted to watch. The guy just laughed. I figured he was laughing because he expected me to give him some BS answer, or maybe because he was thinking, “Damn, what a loser.” Whatever.

  9. Brijendra Dharampuria
    Brijendra Dharampuria says:

    “What do you do” is very common question and definitely everyone had to face this question in his/her life. The question is very simple but answer of this question vary situation to situation, person to person. And therefore, everyone should being familiar with these mentioned seven points. Thanks to capture our attention here.

  10. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny,
    The real problem is when you’re stuck in learning mode because you’re afraid that you’ll fail at what you’re learning about or ‘success’ in general. What do you say then? What do you do then?
    Something to ponder, but definitely related to your “How to bounce back” post don’t you think?

  11. Victoria Ferauge
    Victoria Ferauge says:

    When I was younger, I would reply by saying that it wasn’t about what I do. It’s about what I want and I want to be old, evil and rich.

    Now that I’m older I’ve learned that:
    Old is inevitable.
    Rich is over-rated.
    Evil is too much work.

    Madame Ferauge

  12. New Normal
    New Normal says:

    Never liked this question even when I had an “acceptable” answer for it (whatever THAT is.) At the moment I am unemployed after being at the same job for 21 years. I don’t know which is a bigger “conversation-killer”: That I’m unemployed, or that I actually stayed at my previous job for 21 years! Never fails to flummox folks.

  13. Lynne Von
    Lynne Von says:

    First of all, I LOVE how you decorated your house.
    As for the question “what do you do” –
    I’m a multi-media artist (cartoonist/illustrator, accessories designer/fashion stylist and musician/performer at different times in my life and simultaneously) without ever having been sufficiently commercially successful at any of it. For the past 4 years, my day job (word processor at legal and financial firms) has been simply a means to subsidize my life and creative pursuits and is nothing more than a steady paycheck. A friend recently told me I’m ‘wasted’ at my job. But this friend refuses to do anything unrelated to her artistic field, is 40+ and poor as a church mouse, and NOT happy about it. It’s not about ‘wasting’, I told her, I’m ‘subsidizing’ my ‘real life’. The problem is, the day job takes up most of my time and too much of my energy- in that instead of subsidizing my artistic life it far more often subsidizes a bon vivante lifestyle that serves as an outlet for the frustration of having to work in an environment that’s a total mismatch to my personality. Not that I’m completely unproductive, just not nearly as productive as I could/should be.
    It was not always this way – for years I supported myself strictly through creative pursuits, doing well at times, by sacrificing all of my other artistic pursuits as well as my social life, and came very close to ruining my marriage. Burned out, I used what I consider my incidental skills (good at Excel spreadsheets and fast typing) to get a day job while I figuured out my next move. Day jobs weren’t always easy for me to hold onto, and at times I was an unemployed *something* (those were my lowest points when I really dreaded that question). Finally I found a company so dysfunctional and with such a horrible environment, that had no choice but to tolerate an oddball like me (because so few people want to work here). About 2 years ago I began taking classes at fashion design school in order to give myself some inspiration and more or less throw my sanity a life raft. So for now, my answer to the question “what do you do” is way too long and complicated, and really a good barometer for whether someone *really* wants to know about me or is just being polite (some people like the short answer, and I would like to give one but can’t, and other people find it inspiring in a weird way, in spite of the fact that I’m not ‘successful’). Then again, if a person is talking to me after a gig or at an exhibition of my work they ask “What ELSE do you do” and that’s a much better question.

  14. Jess Wilson
    Jess Wilson says:

    Penelope,

    Interesting view on such a common and seemingly simple question! It has been difficult for me to answer this question in the past as well, maybe because its vague quality and unlimited number of responses can feel overwhelming. I think the steps you’ve suggested are excellent and universal. Good read!

    -Jess

  15. Yeoman
    Yeoman says:

    FWIW, I think the “what do you do” question may be more of a big deal for men than for women. In a group of men who do not know each other that question will inevitably come up, and pretty soon they’ll size each other up, in some ways, based on the answer.

    If you don’t share a self concept of yourself based upon your “occupational identity” that can be a problem. For years I’ve tried to think of myself as really being a farmer who has a license to practice law.. . . but I’m kidding myself if I don’t admit that almost everyone, including other farmers, regard me as a lawyer. Heck, they introduce me to others that way normally.

  16. Jennifer Rolles
    Jennifer Rolles says:

    Loved this post and especially loved your later comment: ”
    But if you think who you are is separate from what you do, you are delusional. Who we are is what we do with our life. How we choose to spend our days. What we do with our minds and our bodies from minute to minute. That’s who we are.

    …The question is, how do you spend time that excites you, keeps you interested and passionate? Because that is what is interesting to other people.”

    That is so true! What is really interesting to others is that part of us that makes us human and unique. It’s another good reason that we should be sure to follow our passions and pursue our interests (at least part of the time.)
    I think if we all learned to be a little less afraid to put ourselves out there and to share those experiences that really mean something to us, we would connect with people on a deeper level and be more interesting at the same time.

    Love your blog. Thanks for the great insights!

  17. Natalie @ Scarlett Notions
    Natalie @ Scarlett Notions says:

    “If you are not learning anything, and not doing anything special, ask yourself why.” -Perfectly stated!

    I think people need conversation starters, and “What do you do” seems like a good place to begin. When people ask me this, I touch on my job, but also talk about other parts of my life.

  18. June
    June says:

    A new neighbour recently invited me to a gathering with several other new neighbours. As soon as I sat down, he asked me out loud, in front of everyone, “Now June, what do you do?” – I grinned and replied “What do I do about what?” Everyone laughed and the man didn’t ask me again! I prefer to be defined by my interests and family, rather than any type of work.
    Juniper

  19. Dr. Mike
    Dr. Mike says:

    In looking at your points of “do’s and dont’s”, why not simply realize we all are different and will always have a unique set of values that are different from yours? Your voids that is. In the end, we are all actually the same, we simply express and repress various value to allow us to love more of ourselves we are disowning. While you are well written, insightfully bright, and right about much, we are all masters in our own selves. Dr. Mike

  20. Donna
    Donna says:

    I like to ask “What keeps you busy?” It lets the person answer any way they like without putting them on the spot about their job.

  21. pooja
    pooja says:

    where would you find the following in the body?
    a) involuntary muscles b) marrow c) cartilage d) retina e) spinal cord

  22. Senior
    Senior says:

    At this time it seems like WordPress is the top blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  23. Claudia Gomez
    Claudia Gomez says:

    This is a great post that because it is should relate to everyone. “What do you do” is very common question and definitely everyone had to face this question in his/her life. The question is very simple yet the answer of this question varies from situation to situation and also from person to person. Such a simple question can be a burden for some to answer, especially when people are a point in their of changing careers or don’t even know what they want to do.

  24. Alnoe
    Alnoe says:

    Hi Penelope, your article is really eye-opening. Thanks for sharing that. I’m Noe from Indonesia and I’ll be happy if we can be friend like penpal, but I think it’s better addressed as interpal since we now use email instead of snail mail.

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