December 28, 2010

What I Do

I've always hated the question "What do you do?" It seems like the answer people are looking for is something simple, something they can use to quickly categorize me - administrative assistant, sex educator, retail salesperson - but that's never the answer I want to give. Sometimes I just say "It's complicated..." and wait for their response. Recently I've taken to saying things like "I'm marginally employed" or "I volunteer a lot" or "I am gainfully unemployed." Occasionally I'll start rattling off a list of projects and commitments (personal and otherwise) that I have on my plate at the moment, which usually includes but is not limited to Binghamton Urban Farm Project/VINES, Food Not Bombs, Southern Tier AIDS Program, knitting group, raising chickens in my backyard, and thinking about starting my own business.

I guess this relates to being a "scanner" (mentioned by my mom in this post), a term coined by Barbara Sher, author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was and Refuse to Choose!: Use All of Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams. I have so many hobbies and interests and projects it often feels impossible to represent myself in a nutshell or elevator spiel. It's also not uncommon for someone to be extremely surprised by some aspect of who I am (former sex-shop employee, former vegan,  farmer, world traveler, hunter, knitter, rock climber, etc.) based on knowing certain other things about me.

This also challenges me when it comes to getting to know new people - not just how to represent myself accurately but also how best to tease out the important stuff about them, which that question "what do you do?" usually fails to bring out. Sometimes I ask about hopes and dreams, but a lot of people are reluctant to talk about those in casual conversation. I've had limited success in asking new acquaintances what they are passionate or excited about. Sometimes I just bring up political or social issues and ask them their views.

I'll write more about some of the specific things I do in future posts, but I imagine this is something I will continue to struggle with.

What about you? Do you have a good way to represent yourself quickly in an elevator or at a party? How do you best get to know others in more than a superficial way?


  1. Personally, I find that what I do essentially tells people who I am: special education teacher and Zumba instructor = social, kid friendly, energetic, active. I know that not everyone can be so easily "defined".

    I once went speed dating, and found the "what do you do" question pretty boring after about 10 potential "dates". I started asking about their opinions on The Daily Show-- which hits the pop-culture and politics interests at the same time. Also "what are you currently reading?" was a good one.

  2. I tell people that I'm a professional "speed-dater" so that I don't have to talk about my actual worklife with strangers. it also helps whittle down my potential dating pool to those interested only in dating "professional daters". but mostly, I avoid talking to new people so that I don't have to bring this sort of thing up. I also avoid elevators; it's tougher to hold awkward conversations while climbing or descending stairs...

    what's the story with the silly-clothes bike ride? i like that photo.

  3. I find that I tailor my answers to the person asking. Since I do many things to remain gainfully employed I can chose which persona I wish to project. My close friends know who I am and what I do. The rest, who cares?

  4. Heather - "What are you currently reading?" is a good suggestion. Though I seem to remember using it in the past and several times getting the response "Nothing/I don't like to read/I don't have time to read." I think I'll try using it more and see what happens now.

    Andrew - I do occasionally consider coming up with a fake career to tell people (professional clown? spoon whittler?). Silly-clothes bike ride = Halloween Critical Mass. More photos on facebook... but you have to join to see 'em!

    Gretchen - You're right, in part. In the past I haven't cared as much about what strangers think of me or know about me, and of course, in different contexts I present different aspects of who I am. But right now I'm in a place where I am trying to build connections, both personal and professional, in this community and it's hard to know who's a good person to connect with on what. Sometimes context helps, but other times I feel like I'm missing out on good connections if I'm not able to get across the right info quickly.

  5. don't threaten me with facebook membership or i'll tell people you're a turd-miner when they ask me what you do! (turd-miner was my friend boris' second favorite made-up job; his first favorite made up job involves goats but isn't appropriate to discuss in mixed company)

  6. It's easy for me...i generally say I am a psychotherapist -- which, of course, gets some funny comments when I meet some new people (of the kind -- so you're going to analyze me? OR Pointing at their friend or spouse, "S/he needs your help)...
    and more quietly I add...and a writer. That part of my identity I am less sure of.