“What Do You Do?”

Growing up, I never thought answering that question would be difficult.

Taralei Griffin
Jun 6 · 5 min read
Still searching for the right answer…

hroughout my high school career, answering the question of “what are you going to do when you graduate?” was routine. As a Freshman, I would eagerly rattle off a list of potential paths I wanted to pursue, from marine biology to creative writing to history to marketing. But by the time I was a Junior, I was beginning to feel nervous that I hadn’t figured it out yet, not to mention sick and tired of everyone saying,

“Well, you’re young, and you don’t have to declare a major right away.”

I found it a relief when, during my graduation celebrations in 2009, I could simply tell my friends and family, “I’m going to get a B.S. in Theatre with an emphasis in technical production.”

For my two years as a college student, I was able to answer simply. I was working towards becoming a technical director on Broadway. I loved working in live production, and it was a job that would provide inspiration and allow me to write in my free time. This was what I wanted. I knew it.

I could see it all — after I graduated, I would move to New York. I’d be a successful Technical Director and Novelist.

Then I dropped out of college to get Real World Experience™️.

Knowing what to tell people about who I am and what I do has only gotten more difficult since. I have sometimes found myself wishing for the certainty of knowing what I’m doing that I had as a senior in high school — even though, ten years later, it’s clear that certainty was premature.

The only thing that has remained certain for me is that I am a Writer. Unfortunately, I let that keep me in a box.

Over the past several years, I’ve developed a passion and skill for photography as well. I balk at calling myself a Photographer, despite the fact that it has become a large part of what I do.

A few years ago, I started using the title of “Journalist.” It seemed to cover everything — I wrote, took photos, and even did live reporting in front of the camera, both on the ground and as commentary. Still, I felt odd using that word, partially because I also wrote fiction in my free time, but mostly because I was freelance. As soon as I said “Journalist” people would ask “Who do you write for?”

The answer is either a list that I have gotten tired of repeating, or saying “I’m freelance” which causes many eye rolls and patronizing comments like,

“Oh, well… I’m sure you’ll get a real job eventually.”

Sometimes, this then leads down another path — “What pays the bills?”

When I lived in Nashville, that was driving for rideshare companies — although I was never excited to introduce myself as an Uber Driver outside of my car. Now that I’m back in the St. Louis metro area, the rideshare market is smaller, so I’ve gotten a part-time job hosting at a restaurant — but Hostess is also something I’m not personally thrilled to introduce myself as outside of my shifts.

I’ve seen many people who do a wide variety of work use terms such as “Consultant” or “Creator” to describe what they do. Neither of those have ever felt quite right for me.

Going into 2019, I found that I was most happy with the term “Storyteller” — it encompasses many of the creative things I do and plan to continue doing as I build my career. But introducing yourself as a Storyteller elicits a lot of different reactions from people that I never quite know how to handle.

So, what DO I do?

How do I find a balanced answer? One that feels right but also doesn’t immediately bring up questions when I’m first meeting someone new?

I finally realized — there isn’t one.

On the phone with my dad recently, he was talking about his job as a construction estimator. For more than 30 years, that’s been his job. He’s worked for multiple different companies, sure, but he is an Estimator. I hung up the phone, feeling a bit jealous of that certainty.

Shout out to my dad, keeping me sane since 1991 despite the fact that I’ve been driving him INSANE for the same amount of time. ;)

But then I logged into Facebook and saw a memory from several years ago when he owned a pizza business and called himself a Pizzaiolo.

Leading up to the point when he purchased a wood fired oven on a trailer and started Pizza Festa di Viaggio (The Traveling Pizza Party), in the evenings and on the weekends, he was a Chef.

As a student, he was an Artist and he graduated with a degree in Advertising. He discovered and grew his skills as a construction estimator while working as Graphic Designer.

Even though he sold the pizza oven after five years of pizza-making at different events from Minnesota to Tennessee, he is still a Pizzaiolo every Sunday when he makes pizzas for my mom and whoever is nearby. He is a Chef when he yells up the stairs while I’m visiting over Christmas that I need to wake up or miss out on pancakes. He’s an Artist when he’s thinking of something he wants to draw. He’s an Estimator when he’s at his office or a job site. And he’s much more — just like everyone making their way through life.

Unlike myself and a lot of people I know, he isn’t worried about other people’s reactions to his definition of who he is and what he does. That sort of self-assurance is something I am still working towards.

Summing ourselves up is never going to be easy. Some people may have one career and keep it their whole lives, but there are other aspects of their lives and hobbies that make up that person’s definition just as much as or more than their career.

Society puts a lot of pressure on individuals to fit neatly into a box with only a few, easy labels — but that’s not the way humans are built. We’re meant to be able to expand or build onto our box as needed, or visit other boxes, or even destroy our boxes and build entirely new ones.

I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s really not necessary for everyone we meet to comprehend how many aspects of us there are. If they’re someone who will be part of our life more than the initial introduction, then there’ll be time to explain — I introduced myself to you as a Writer, but I’m also a Photographer, a Journalist, a Driver, a Violinist, a Hostess, a Production Tech, a Daughter, a Sister, a Friend… a Human who is constantly honing my current skills and passions, while also finding new ones.

❤ ❤ ❤

Taralei Griffin

Written by

Storyteller. Hufflepuff. Valkyrie of Hope. Traveling Woman. Author of THE GREAT MEANDER - coming January 1st, 2020!