“What do you do?” Are you a plumber, or a hiker?

Published February 17, 2015   Posted in Having some fun

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?

Courtney and me on a San Francisco brunch cruiseHow do you answer that question?

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 “photo blogger” (which I am, over at my photography web site – saadigital.com).

Imagine the reaction I’ll get now.  Instead of “I’m in IT”, it’s “I’m a photo blogger”.  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?

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11 responses to ““What do you do?” Are you a plumber, or a hiker?”

  1. I answer with I am a SEO manager….and get a blank stare in return. Then I have to explain that things are ranked in Google and websites can be optimized to rank as high as possible, blah blah blah.

    I think people have a lot of their identity wrapped up in their work, after all we spend most of our days at work – unless we are able to break free. It would be nice to say that you are a blogger or a photo-blogger, but ultimately it would be “I am a business owner” and that is pretty cool – especially when you are selling yourself!

    • Hi Brian!

      True, some people do have their identity wrapped up in their work. I wish more people (me included) enjoyed the same phenomenon. A business owner is an awesome way to introduce yourself. Naturally, the next question is “What kind of business do you run?”

      And bam…the beginnings of another interesting conversation. 🙂

  2. Zee says:

    Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the mention, it really is funny how job centric everyone is these days. But then again… it is where (or what) we spend the majority of our waking hours doing. I know that I do, even though I’m working hard at removing a traditional job from my life. But yes, it’s a boring way to answer the question. I just need to find some better answers besides “small dog wrestler” or “karaoke superstar”… well not superstar, but I do karaoke from time to time.


    • Not a problem, Zee – your post truly did inspire this one. Ha, a karaoke superstar. Now that answer would definitely get me to answer a follow up question or two. In fact, it might even encourage me to beg you to belt out a few choice numbers right in the middle of everybody.

      Imagine the stories…

  3. Loved this post. I am guilty of falling back on my JOB as well.

    But until this post I had not given it much thought. But now when people ask me I am going to tell them that I and a finance and fitness fanatic and aspiring lifestyle entrepreneur.

    That should make for some interesting conversation.


  4. […] We wondered what to say when asked “What do you do?”. […]

  5. […] “What do you do?” Are you a plumber, or a hiker? Steve wrote an article that strongly reminds me of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. And it’s basically questioning who you are. My answer to that question – who are you? – was never my job title. Because I’m much more than that. While this needn’t be true for everyone, I’d be willing to bet that most people can (and probably do) offer much more to society than just what they do during their workday. As such, your answer should reflect that. […]

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