Zee over at Work To Not Work published a blog post recently that talked about a topic that is so common, yet, I somehow never gave it much thought in the past.
Imagine yourself at a dinner party for your significant other. You probably know very few people there. In an effort to make small talk, someone asks you a very simple, yet loaded, question: What do you do?
How do you answer that question?
So, what do you do?
If you are like most people, you probably interpret that person to be asking you what you do for a living…plainly, what you call your “job”.
If you are a computer programmer, then you say something like “I work with computers” or some such lame, wholly uninteresting description of what brings home your bacon.
Naturally, I thought about how I would answer such a question – nay, I thought about how I’ve actually answered that question in the past.
Like most, I answered with an equally boring description of what pays the bills – “I work in IT” is usually my generic answer because I am an “enterprise database” consultant by day – and only by day.
How mind-numbing. How unbelievably dull.
Zee asked an important question in his blog post, and one that needs a much better answer than the one we get from society.
“Why do we focus so much on work?” I don’t know. We shouldn’t. This is bullshit, and if we think about it for a minute, I think we all know it.
Why does the question “What do you do?” have to revolve around work? Why can’t that question relate more to what you do in your free time? Or, what you do to have fun?
In other words, is there any reason why we don’t answer that question with what our true passion in life truly is?
After all, describing what you do for a living has very little to do with who you are on the inside. Sure, this question is mainly asked in an effort to otherwise fill a void in a strange social situation with an easy, slow-pitch question designed to generate conversation.
But, why not make the most out of this question and talk about what truly interests you? For a lot of people, that is not necessarily their jobs, and job titles can easily kill conversations before they even begin.
“I’m a District Applications Manager“. Or, “I am a Customer Information and Data Director“. Or even more common: “I work in accounts receivable”. “I’m in marketing”. “I’m a human resources assistant”.
“…oh, okay. Nice to meet you!”
Now, let’s say that you are a plumber, but love to hike. If you answer the “What do you do?” question with “I’m an avid hiker”, would that be an inappropriate answer because you don’t actually earn a living hiking?
To me, hell no.
In fact, that’s an honest answer to what truly motivates you, and is probably a hell of a lot more interesting than talking about your job title.
This moment of reflection has inspired me to change how I answer this question from now on. No longer will I respond to this question with some drab, sleep-inducing description of what I call my job.
Instead, I’m going to talk about my true passion in life: photography and blogging. In fact, I’ll combine them together and consider myself a “photoblogger” or something.
Imagine the reaction I’ll get now.
Instead of “I’m in IT”, it’s “I’m a photoblogger”. If someone responded to me with that answer – even if I wasn’t particularly interested in photography, I would be curious enough to voluntarily continue the conversation.
It’s funny how art is a conversation piece that tends to be relatively easy to talk about, even if art just isn’t your thing.
“Oh really? What do you like taking pictures of”? “I have this really old camera that I never use any more – I should show it to you one of these times”.
Remember the hiker example above? What is the most natural follow-up question? Maybe something like, “Oh yeah? Where have you hiked?”
Bingo, here we have the beginnings of an interesting conversation, one that both participants can genuinely find some kind of excitement in. Imagine that.
Remember the plumber/hiker dude from above? Now, imagine that guy responded with the more customary answer to this question instead of his love for hiking. “I’m a plumber”. What’s your follow-up question now? “Oh yeah?
“Where have you…plumbed?“
In the end, a more interesting response to one of society’s most common questions leads to a far more productive use of time, and maybe even a conversation that we can take something meaningful from.
Yep, I’m trying this, and I will report back with how it went.
What about you? How do you answer this question?
This article was originally published February of 2015 but has been republished under the Revise and Republish content strategy.
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.