“Nice to meet you. What do you do?”
This weekend I attended my first non-corporate conference. The prevailing introductory question was, “What do you do?” I’ve never felt like my job paints an adequate picture of me, so I have always chafed a bit at this question. Watching the awkwardness with which this question unfolded at this particular event stirred a lot of thoughts on this well-accepted first question. Let’s lay it all out: What information does this question actually elicit? What are we trying to learn? Can we do this part of the getting-to-know-you process better?
“What value are you to society? Can I get in on that?”
When you ask what someone does–to make money–that’s the information you will get. You are learning a small defining feature about this person, but likely the largest societal currency that the person possesses. If someone tells you they are a surgeon, you know that likely the largest value they bring to society at large is their skill in the operating room.
Next, you’re trying to relate. You wonder if this surgeon is any good/as good as the other surgeons you know/if you or anyone you love can benefit from the particular surgical skills of this person. If you’re also a surgeon, you’ll likely compare yourself as well. Comparison and reflection is a primary facet of relating to others. Likely that surgeon is largely wrapped up, and feels defined by, her profession, but that isn’t who that person is, and does not determine the value of that person. She has hobbies, favorite charities, a family, friends, favorite foods/smells/colors, a whole array of personality traits and particular cares, and possibly a purpose outside of their professional skills.
Back to the conference. It covered a particular website platform. Most attendees do such a variety of things, even with respect to the topic of the conference, that they didn’t know where to start when asked what they do. It became obvious, that quick mental evaluation of any number of factors took place. I, for one, was thinking, based on the very little I know about this person, I need to describe myself professionally in the following terms:
- most accurate,
- most relevant to the event,
- most socially impressive,
- most personally beneficial to the asker,
- possibly, least intimidating.
Sam Killerman, social justice warrior/comedian/coder/graphic designer/author/internet author/researcher/non-profit runner/professional speaker/photographer…, writes about this over here. He really captures the tension that this question brings up, and hilariously spells out the consternation that happens when he tries to give the best answer.
Incidentally, I engage in a similar mental acrobatics when someone simply asks for my name. I have my given first name, but have gone by a couple nicknames. I used to feel the need to introduce myself by the name that would make most sense to the person asking. I would work backwards through the people we both knew, and what those people call me. I’ve since stopped doing that for the sake of simplicity and I want to stop this “What do you do?” mental math as well.
What we really want to know when we ask “What do you do?”
Yes, we do want a tailored picture of why this person should be a new addition to our lives. However, when you consider your long list of friends and acquaintances, how many really came to importance in your life because of their profession? Probably fewer than you might think. And the most important people grow in importance for reasons absolutely distinct from their profession. As a former near-attorney and friend to many in the legal profession, I can tell you that lawyers don’t want to be most valued because they are lawyers. The ocean of lawyer jokes will tell you why.
But what is it that we want to know? Well, it’s hard to know what you’ll like most about a person, with a single question after learning their name. But let’s try!
How do you want others to define you?
Take me for example. I do a lot of things, and I do think initially about what I do for work when asked to define myself, but even that’s complicated. Isn’t that just the trend these days? I haven’t been at this life thing too terribly long, but I’ve been “underemployed,” transitioning between kinds of work (student->working, intra-industry, employed->mother->employed), creating new sources of income (#sidehustle), growing a hobby into a job, and exploring and practicing the entrepreneur thing. How do you not look constipated when someone asks “What do you do?” in the midst of any of those times? Does any of this feel familiar to you?
Currently, I spend most of my time being a mother. That is freaking work, but not particularly valued in our culture, despite the importance of producing children who grow into good humans. I was educated in philosophy, political theory, and law, but I don’t use my degrees (what else is new?), despite loving what I learned and experienced in school. I have a sales business, but how to describe it? By the name of the company? dōTERRA. Yes, but not enough people have heard of it for it to clearly communicate what I do. The kind of company? The best essential oil and supplement company. That still doesn’t adequately describe what I do. I don’t simply sell. I teach people about natural health and well-being, empower them to take responsibility for that part of their lives, and introduce them to one kind of entrepreneurial opportunity that can be a means to financial and time freedom. That’s a lovingly-crafted elevator pitch, but not everything I do. I talked about that work a bit at the conference because those were the business cards I had to give out. Most relevant to the conference was my work on this blog. The blog is new, though. I’m not new to mentoring for growth (also part of my sales business), but I am new to blogging about it, and to blogging in general. I would love to be considered a writer, but I don’t claim the credentials for that yet.
How many pieces of information can you share in 30 seconds to describe who you are without sounding like a self-obsessed weirdo? In which case, the introduction is moot anyway.
A wonderful discussion of the words that define us, comes in the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth attempts to come up with one word, an even trickier proposition. She considers that the word changes during her life, and in the introspective time of her life that became Eat, Pray, Love, she had a hard time.
But Giulio was already on to the next and most obvious question: “What’s your word?”
Now that, I definitely could not answer.
And still, after a few weeks of thinking about it, I can’t answer it any better now. I know some words that it definitely isn’t. It’s not MARRIAGE, that’s evident. It’s not FAMILY (though this was the word of the town I’d lived in for a few years with my husband, and since I did not fit with that word, this was a big cause of my suffering). It’s not DEPRESSION anymore, thank heavens. I’m not concerned that I share Stockholm’s word of CONFORM. But I don’t feel that I’m entirely inhabiting New York City’s ACHIEVE anymore, either, though that had indeed been my word all throughout my twenties. My word might be SEEK. (Then again, let’s be honest — it might just as easily be HIDE.) Over the last months in Italy, my word has largely been PLEASURE, but that word doesn’t match every single part of me, or I wouldn’t be so eager to get myself to India. My word might be DEVOTION, though this makes me sound like more of a goody-goody than I am and doesn’t take into account how much wine I’ve been drinking.
I don’t know the answer, and I suppose that’s what this year of journeying is about. Finding my word.
Notice that not even the profession-oriented word “achieve” strictly defines her by her job. She’s defining herself in very broad terms that describe the most important theme of her life. In case you’re wondering, Elizabeth comes to her word when she’s reading an old yoga text in an ashram in India:
A Sanskrit word appeared in the paragraph: ANTEVASIN. It means “one who lives at the border.” In ancient times this was a literal description. It indicated a person who had left the bustling center of worldly life to go live at the edge of the forest where the spiritual masters dwelled. The antevasin was not one of the villagers anymore — not a householder with a conventional life. But neither was he yet a transcendent — not one of those sages who live deep in the unexplored woods, fully realized. The antevasin was an in-betweener. He was a border-dweller. He lived in sight of both worlds, but he looked toward the unknown. And he was a scholar.
When I read this description of the antevasin, I got so excited I gave a little bark of recognition. That’s my word, baby!
It turns out she is what consumes her at this particular stage of her life. And her word makes sense, given the context of the time in her life. She’s telling a story of a journey of self-discovery, and she is that person on that pursuit. So what consumes you at this stage of life? What’s the theme of your life, with which you want others to identify and relate?
“Who are you?” or “Tell me about yourself.”
In his TED Talk “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” Alain de Botton suggests that we live in a global culture of snobbery. “A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery.” The question, “What do you do?” while expected, paints a snobbish picture based on an incomplete view of someone’s life with a deficient meritocratic foundation. I propose that there are better single questions to ask to learn what you really want to know about someone. Be prepared to wait as someone formulates a response to a question that isn’t rote. And be prepared to listen, as it may take more words than engineer, or account executive, or administrative assistant, or Director of Product, or plumber, etc. So, let’s not be snobs.
Personally, what I most identify with, is more an aspect of my personality that touches most parts of my life. I’m enthusiastic! But unless you’re a cheerleader, that’s not descriptive enough. I’ve been described jokingly as a cruise director, and while I’ve never worked on a cruise ship, I think that’s closest. “What do I do? Oh, I’m a cruise director without a cruise ship.” Cue the confused expressions all around. “That is…I’m enthusiastically invested in other humans having a good time, but authentically, in everyday life. No cruise ship required.” That’s weird, but I’m okay with being weird in that way. I would much rather want someone to get to know me based on that description of myself, than “writer” or “network marketer” or “health educator.”
So, tell me about yourself. Who are you? Who do you want to be? What’s the common denominator for the parts of you? Is it something you think is important for others to know? Does what you tell people about yourself advance your dreams?