What do you do? This is often the first question we ask strangers. On the surface it seems like an innocuous query, one we ask each other every day, a servile four-word nicety we utter so we have something—anything—to talk about.
The majority of the answers are boring, soundbite-ish replies we have standing by at the ready, prepped for the next dinner party or networking event: I am a director of operations. I am a regional manager. I am the senior vice president of Who-Gives-a-Shit.
Whoop-dee-do. Good for you.
Truth be told, we regurgitate these canned answers because they’re easy to repeat, trance-like and semi-conscious, over and over and over again. No one wants to talk about their boring day job ad nauseam, but it sure is easy to state your name, rank, and serial number: it’s easy to prove you’re a cog in the wheel or a rung on the ladder—just like everyone else. It’s much harder, however, to talk about other, more important aspects of life. So, instead of finding more worthwhile discussions, we go about our days providing lifeless answers to this lifeless question, our collective discs set to repeat.
Let’s think about this question: it’s such a broad, salient inquiry any answer would suffice. What do I do? I do a lot of things: I drink water. I eat food. I write words sloppily onto little yellow legal pads.
Once you scrape away its cheap gold-plating, however, you’ll find a series of irksome inquisitions lurking beneath the surface. Sadly, what we’re actually asking when we posit this malefic question, albeit unknowingly, is:
How do you earn a paycheck? How much money do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you? Am I a rung above you? Below you? How should I judge you? Are you worth my time?
There is a better way to answer this dangerous query, though: by changing the question altogether.
The next time someone asks what you do, try this: Don’t give them your job title. Instead, tell them what you’re passionate about, and then change course by asking them what they are passionate about:
“What do you do?” asks the stranger.
“I’m passionate about writing (or rock climbing or sailing or input accounting),” you say, followed by, “What are you passionate about?”
At this point, you’ll likely get one of three responses: 1) a blank stare, 2) the person will tell you they’re also passionate about X, Y, or Z, and the conversation will veer off in a more heartfelt direction, or 3) the stranger will attempt to recite their job title, to which you can respond, “That’s great. So you’re passionate about your job?” Eventually, you will both discuss the things you enjoy, instead of the jobs you don’t.
I practiced this exercise during my last year in the corporate world: it helped me remove the importance of my job title from my life, and it opened me up to discussing with others my passion for writing. I had an impressive job title, but it didn’t make me happy—it didn’t fulfill me. Now I’m more fulfilled pursuing my dream than by any title.
Think of this shift as changing a noun into a verb. Instead of giving people a title (i.e., a box to put you in), let them know what you enjoy doing—what you’re passionate about—and then discover what they enjoy. The conversation will morph into something far more interesting, and you’ll learn a lot more about each other than your silly job titles.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.
By& Ryan Nicodemus