“What do you do?”
It is the quintessential question of unimaginative adults upon first meetings. It is the mark of a society that has completely quaffed the Kool-Aid of materialism, where one’s human worth is measured by net worth. What could be more important identifying information than the nature of your job? Certainly not your values, talents, passions, or other non-monetizable attributes.
The singular focus on work also betrays our preference for the superficial. It is so much more convenient to peg someone with a Bureau of Labor Statistics job label than to discover what actually makes them tick.
When did the wonderfully open-ended question “What do you do?” come to mean “What do you do for work?”? I live a damn interesting, fun-filled life; but somehow the things I “do” in pursuit of curiosity and joy don’t seem to factor into the standard introductions. In fact, were I to reply, “I eat well, and let the rest take care of itself,” the awkwardness would doubtless kill the conversation.
Milly Watson, author of the now-defunct Travelin’ Light and the newly-funct Wixed Mords blogs, wrote a nice piece about the naked contempt she suffered when revealing herself to be a happy homemaker during a blissful interlude between work and a return to school. I am often treated to a sublimated form of the same projected insecurity as a result of trading in an enviable law practice for a life of unpaid service, climbing down most of the available rungs of the economic ladder in the process. The sublime irony is: my life utterly rocks. As my father once said, in perhaps the kindest compliment ever paid me, “In my next life I want to come back as Mark.” And yet, most people are still more comfortable identifying me as the lawyer I was than as the whatever-the-hell-it-is-that-you-do that I am.
Howard Thurman, the great philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader, famously wrote: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” “Doing” in the context of Dr. Thurman’s advice means more than earning a paycheck. And if you are happy and passionate about the things you are “doing”, you have every reason to be contented, no matter what path others might chose for you.
What do I do? Mostly daydream, I suspect (if I did a strict, minute-by-minute accounting). As Ira Gershwin penned, Nice work if you can get it.