So, What Do You Do?

Let’s learn to value Being as much as Doing.

This post is part of a practice I jumped into this year called Wednesday Words started by Victor Saad. This was week one, originally posted on Facebook January 11 2017.

This morning I had the pleasure of starting my day by skyping with a friend who moved to Amsterdam last year. I sipped coffee as she unwound from her day.

We got to talking about taking breaks. Breaks from career, more specifically. I’ve been slowly re-establishing myself after a three month break. She’s about to take one. The question I dread the most right now, I told Jess, is

‘So, what do you do?’

You see, at this very moment I have no good answer for that. I took my break to contemplate what I wanted this next decade of my work to be about. I knew I was ready for a big leap forward, but I haven’t quite landed on the thing that I can quickly tell people. As Courtney Martin once said in my all-time-favourite On Being episode,

“I’ve got one of those careers that doesn’t fit neatly on a business card.”

It also doesn’t fit neatly into a polite 5 minute get-to-know-you chat. It never really has, but it’s particularly acute right now.

Photo by Devon Andrea Photography. Also what it feels like to try to explain my career.

I also just moved to a small town. I’m meeting tonnes of new people. I get asked this all the damn time. It gives me anxiety. It’s really highlighted for me the total integration of Who You Are with What You Do.

And that’s fucked up. (Maybe.)

Think about it for a quick second: the first thing we ask a new person is: “So what do you do?”

This taken-for-granted social custom has a purpose: it immediately establishes a heuristic in our minds. It gives us the scaffolding to start our meaning-making. It provides a whole set of assumptions to fill in the blanks about who we’re talking to, what their life probably looks like, what our utility will be to one another, what we will have to relate about and how similar or different we might be. What this essentially is doing is establishing where their place is in the deterministic social hierarchy that runs invisibly in the background of all of our lives.

After all, when we answer this question, we answer with the phrase I am.

I am a carpenter.

I am a teacher.

I am a program manager.

I am the founder of an Uber for Dogs start up.

I am a __(fill in the blank)___.

To say I am is to indicate our position. It tells people where to locate you. Except you are not indicating a physical place where you are (I am at the park), you are indicating where you belong in a social structure.

As I fumble along figuring out my What’s Next, being dislocated in this structure is giving me a lot to think about. Though, to be fair, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought about this, it’s just that it’s come into especially sharp relief in my life as I make this big transition of purpose and place.

In 2015 when I launched the RADIUS Fellowship program, I was being mentored by the very wise Sue Biely. One of the most important things we did together at her request was make a strict rule that on the first session no one was allowed to introduce themselves by their title or in association with their current project. They had to introduce themselves by stating where they grew up and what a favourite memory of their childhood was. We wanted to establish common ground. We wanted them to be able to relate first as people and avoid for as long as possible establishing any kind of social ordering.

I think it was a successful experiment. The fellows commented that it was both uncomfortable and refreshing and that it set a completely different tone for the experience. It helped some of them relax and open up, especially in a cohort of over achievers.

Perhaps some of this is benign. Perhaps it’s a mechanism we’ve developed in this society to expedite the process of relating. It’s a very quick way to get to know someone, what they (probably) care about; a way to express interest.

When I probe deeper though, I’m not so sure. I think it can be yet another way we silently sort ourselves and in the process amplify our own separation and isolation (and often hidden structures of power and privilege). Especially when we are asking it unconsciously because it’s just what we ask a new person.

What we are trying to do by asking this, I think, is to connect. What we are getting in effect though is distance.

This leads me to my final thought and question for you: what else can we ask besides ‘So, what do you do?’. What’s bigger than our Doing and acknowledges our value just for Being?

Originally published at