What Do You Do?
By Mari McGrath · June 26, 2008
How do you answer the question “What do you do?” It’s a decidedly quarterlife question. Until your mid-20s, most people go on the assumption that you are a student (an annoying assumption for those of us who didn’t take the collegiate route), and thus the question need not be asked. But during your post-graduate age, whenever you go out to parties, or bars, or leave your apartment at all, the question inevitably gets asked, “What do you do?”
Now, that’s all well and good if you are doing something. It can be easily deflected by those of us who are in careers that we enjoy – “I’m a graphic designer,” or “I’m a teacher,” or “I sell kidneys on the black market.” However, if you find yourself approaching, in, or just exiting your quarterlife crisis, this little question can be another foot in the hole that is the crisis.
It’s not that the question is inherently offensive; it’s a standard ice breaker, getting-to-know-you, make-a-first-impression question. If someone is asking it in a romantic situation, it can be a tool to size you up – “Am I going to have to work while this loser plays Wii all day?” Mostly, though, the question is used to get a grasp of who you are so that the following inane chit-chat can have a direction.
I hate this question.
It is utterly pointless on multiple levels. If someone isn’t really interested in getting to know me, then I feel no need to define myself for him or her. If someone is interested in getting to know me, there are far more interesting things about me than “what do you do?”
I work at a furniture store (note: I did not say, “I’m a furniture salesperson”), and the people I sell things to all provide for themselves in some way. Do I care how? Not really. My concern is more along the lines of, “What problem do you have that I can find a solution for?” (By the way, we are a very different kind of furniture company!). Overall, I want to know about their needs more than their jobs. By learning about a person’s needs, I get a more complete understanding of who that person is than any “what do you do” question could provide me.
Of course, the answer to this question in times of crisis can bring up the inner quarterlife monster, who responds with a resounding “NOTHING!” It’s a constant, forced introspection, a reevaluation of where you are in life. If, like many of us, you are in a crappy entry-level job in a field you hate, a graduate program that seems to go on forever, or unemployed, your response to this question echoes in your head, “I am a failure.”
Except that you’re not.
Sure, we all have unfulfilled potential and life may not have gone the way we intended (If it did, call me! I know some doctoral students who would love to study you.). It’s realizing that what you “do” may not be defining who you “are.” I’ve always wanted to do something inspiring that changed the world. I wanted to make a difference. My crisis made me doubt my relevance in the world. So, when people would ask me, “What do you do?” I didn’t have a response. Sometimes the answer was, “nothing.” Sometimes I embellished the most recent part-time, temporary project I had in order to make myself feel better about not having what I thought was a good enough answer.
Ultimately, that is the issue: having a good enough answer, not for the person asking, but for yourself. It took a long time for me to come to terms with not having an answer at all. Now my answer changes all the time. Sometimes it is related to my work, and other times it is an element of who I am. Sometimes I am a contributor to a fabulous new website and other days I’m a semi-professional opera singer. I think that we all need to keep reminding ourselves about the parts of who we are that matter, and not get stuck on the parts that the world wants to matter, because, in the end, you’re the only person to whom you have to answer.