“What Do You Do?”


“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.

7 Responses to ““What Do You Do?””

  1. 2 millyonair 14 September 2007 at 7:13 am

    Hi Mark! Thanks for the links!

    In American culture, we wear our busy-ness (and our business) like a badge of honor. I saw a magazine article recently about this woman who was a soccer-mom/attorney/who-knows-what-else. The article had to do with clever ways to organize her mini-van into a kind of rolling office and tidy kidmobile. It showed a “before” picture of the inside of her minivan, which looked like a dumpster, and an after picture, in which all her crap was stacked and tucked into nifty boxes and bags and folders. I like to be orderly, don’t misunderstand me. But all I was more impressed by the myriad layers of personal and cultural awfulness implied by the article. I don’t relish the idea of sharing a highway with someone who is talking on their phone and pecking at the screen of their palm pilot while referencing some papers strewn across the passenger seat. But she probably thinks she “has to” do all that stuff.

    Daydreamers are a dying breed. And so are people who only drive while they’re in the car.

  2. 3 viral 19 September 2007 at 11:49 am

    interesting reflection … i remember valeri once telling me after a vacation in europe that when people were asked what they “did”, she would often get in response, “Oh, I ski, I golf …” … don’t know if you share that same experience in europe …

    also reminded me of a passage on thought of the week a little while ago, on the difference between your work and your job:


  3. 4 smita 23 September 2007 at 2:06 pm

    I remember being told by my high school German teacher that it was considered the height of rudeness when meeting someone to ask: “What do you do?” It was seen as an attempt to figure out their socio-economic status, and therefore considered gauche.

    Mark would seem to be echoing an irritation the Germans felt long ago. And it might explain the experience of non-responsive answers in Europe that Viral relates.

  4. 5 jessima 2 January 2008 at 4:50 am

    i hear u!

    i usually give the most preposterous answer that pops into my head..
    its good if it terminates the conversation…. might even be worth it..

  5. 6 Mary 21 January 2008 at 9:14 am

    I used to be a seamstress! I always hated that word. It implies drudgery and dullness and someone who is uneducated. I wanted to get into the more technical dimensions of garment manufacturing (pre-NAFTA) so I could say something like Design Developer. Eventually I became a Designer which is a broad enough term I can make it mean whatever I want. I can design your living room, your jewelry and image or redesign the interior of your mind. I do many things well. For the first time, the work I do isn’t so far removed from what I do for fun or pleasure. Not counting the catty and self important people I have to deal with on a day to day basis…but that’s another rant entirely.

  6. 7 Deepti Lamba 20 July 2008 at 11:55 pm

    Mark, I linked to your article in DC. I am coming up with quirky one liners to throw these corporate types off my tail. Maybe I should go around calling myself a trophy wife just for the fun of it;)

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