“What do you do?” I was asked this seemingly benign question at a party last night. I knew what he meant – what do I do at work? What is my job? How do I earn a living? This is the opening question to many get-to-know-you conversations, akin to the ‘how are you?’ greeting we haphazardly offer. And, yet, I found myself unable to answer his question in those ways. My thoughts this year have been swirling around how I am so much more than my job, more than my career. My life is more than what I do at work.
My answer to this poor, unsuspecting friend? I read; I ride bikes; I spin; I eat; I write; I nap. I smiled and asked if that’s what he meant, or did he mean what did I do for work? He laughed, good-naturedly. And then we really talked – we talked about what we did for fun, about our interests and passions. Not once did we revert to the work question. Our conversation was lively, engaged. We found commonalities and discovered new ideas. I left the evening realizing I had not answered his intended question – but I told him about parts of my authentic self.
Perhaps I am developmentally right on target with my midlife musings – why is it that we identify so strongly with our jobs that we begin an introductory conversation with ‘what do you do?’ In some cases, we are subconsciously trying to figure out where we respectively lie on the social continuum. Is your job better than mine? Is mine more prestigious than yours? We rarely begin the conversation with that purpose in mind – we are truly asking to learn about one another, and work is often how we define ourselves in our society and culture. Regardless of intention, we walk away with an awareness of the social ladder and where we fit in relation to our new friend.
My conversation last night had no implicit hierarchy – no placement on the career stratum or educational continuum. We talked about joy and fun – not the career cloaks we wear. We laughed, we did not commiserate. Telling my friend what I like to do gave him a better picture of who I am than what I do for my job. Sure, I spend many more hours at work than I do pursuing my interests, but my job is only one part of me, one that can change, as it did a year ago.
I do express integral components of myself and my identity in my job. I make things happen; I turn vision into reality; I ask questions and find answers; I plan and implement; I juggle multiple initiatives; I build and foster relationships; I teach; I learn. That is who I am -and what I do, regardless of for whom I do it.
Did I answer his question? Did I tell him what I did? Absolutely. At our next meeting, I may tell him what I do to earn a living.
Maybe. Maybe we’ll talk about cake instead.