So, what do you do?

If there’s one thing common to corporate events, barbecue parties, conferences, PTA meetings, and college reunions, it’s the existential question we ask of others and is often asked of us “So, what do you do?”

In a reflection of the disproportionate emphasis we place on those eight daily working (rather, at work) hours of our life, our role and place of work seek to define us as people. Our expected response is akin to the most recent entry on our LinkedIn profile and, if you think about it, a myopic view of who we are as people and as a species.

That. Is. Sad.

Wouldn’t it pave the way for much better conversation and the serendipitous discovery of shared interests, tribes and connections if we were to reframe how we introduce ourselves to others? Remember the autograph books those of us in our 40s and older had in school — where we’d ask friends to fill in their hobbies, favorite places, sports, etc? What if we could rewind and bring that back into how we identify ourselves? And others? What if we initiated a conversation by asking people what they’re into, the hobbies they have, the sports they play or fitness regimens they advocate, the places they’ve loved and hope to go to, and finally, how they’re known in the circles they inhabit? The last of these would include current answers to “So, what do you do?” but the previous questions pave the way for so much more conversation. And connections. And learning of the best kind — from the experiences of others.

Unfortunately, once we leave behind the social fabric of school and college and enter “the real world”, structured opportunities that catalyze connections like the ones described above are scarce. But, they’re there. Stream is a great example of one. And done right, at that…

Almost every year, for the last 6 years, I clear my calendar for 4 days in February or March to make it to WPP Stream at Jaipur. The event is held annually in various cities across the world but Jaipur is where I’ve been a regular. The first time around, I was admittedly cynical about the “unconference” moniker to the event. I was perhaps jaded by the many unconferences I’d been to that while advocating no agenda, had one, albeit hidden. And had more rigid structure and rules than they cared to admit. Stream was an unconference in the truest sense of the word…

  • There was structure (every Stream every year and every place has the same structure) but there was plenty of canvas between the scaffolding. If you think about it, some structure, whether it is 140 characters, full-pages, 30 seconds or a six-second looping video — is a catalyst for creativity.
  • There were no headliners announced. There were no headliners, period.
  • People were not ushered from their conversations in the spillover areas into conference rooms. The conversation at the spillover areas was the event. The opposite is my pet peeve with most conferences.

A quick chronological tour of the kaleidoscope that was Stream Jaipur, 2019 may help lend perspective to the above comments. A motley mix of advertising and marketing executives, inventors and tinkerers, musicians and artists made their way to Jaipur on a Wednesday afternoon. The evening was a preamble of the 48 hours to come — with people pitching workshops on subjects ranging from cocktail mixing to improv comedy, pitching discussions they’d anchor on topics as diverse as blockchain implementations and mental health, fitness activities including yoga, hikes and lot more. And then there were the Ignite talks, Stream’s version of Pecha Kucha where (brave) people presented 15 slides that would auto-advance in 15 seconds, ready or not, on a subject of their choice — photography, scuba diving, learning the tabla, and launching a book, among others. The rest of the evening simply saw people catching up with old friends and new (70% of the attendees every year are first-time Streamers) over dinner and drinks. Conversations are where you discover that someone is a serial Northern Lights watcher and that at least 3 people regularly jump into subzero-waters whenever they have the chance. There are events happening too for those who choose to attend — like Stream Cinema — if you’re one of those who enjoys watching “Netflix with a tribe” and dissecting what you saw afterward. If not, the bar is open till 2 AM. More conversation.

The next two days, very much like the food at Stream, saw a buffet of delicious experiences. Up to 8 simultaneous discussions, any time of the day on various patches of grass peppered with esoteric workshops, a tech lab with cool gadgets, and small groups huddled together practicing for their skit, dance, song or performance on the last day of Stream. Day 2 also saw a lovely dinner at a local fort all decked up and hosted by the gracious folks at Rajasthan Patrika.

Day 3 pretty much mirrors day 2 till sunset — with more discussions and workshops and cool things to see and do. After sunset, there’s an extravaganza of various performances — from comedy and skits to a presentation on “Indian English”, and a vote of thanks to all the folks who made the event happen. But it’s not over yet. 15 people then don chef hats and proceed to man (or woman) cooking stations around a beautiful stage where the Stream Band (assembled 48 hours ago) performs. The singers are all stream attendees. The 15 chefs often have between 1–3 sous chefs each who chose to don that hat (pun intended) perhaps over a conversation and a drink the last evening. Conversations = Connections. This year also saw an amazing performance by “Dharavi Rocks” — with rappers, beatboxers and percussionists from Dharavi (in Mumbai, India) — bringing the crowd to their feet. Music. Food. Drink. Conversations. Connections. Experiences. That’s Stream in a nutshell.

Coming back to where we were…

By day 2, the conversation at Stream shifts from “So, what do you do?” to “So, what are you doing at Stream?” and by Day 3 it moves to “So, what did you do that was interesting?”. Answers are a combination “I participated in / anchored / played a workshop / discussion / song / sport”. Hopefully, when everyone, tired and happy, took their flight out on Saturday, they retained a bit of that. And hopefully, we’ll have more events like Stream and realize, over time, that there’s a lot more to each of us as people and as a species.

And hopefully, more of us will ask “What are you doing these days?” questions. And when asked “So, what do you do?”, start with our hobbies, aspirations, places we’ve been, and the things we do for our emotional, spiritual and physical well being. And finally, perhaps, what we do at work — that most recent line on our LinkedIn profile.

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A perennial student, Lakshmanan aka Lux Narayan enjoys improv and stand up comedy and has performed at the Comedy Cellar in New York. His TED talk on “lessons from 2000 obituaries” has been viewed over 1.6 million times. Among other things, he enjoys trekking and scuba diving and, once he learns to fly, hopes to spend more time off land than on it. He is the CEO & a co-founder at Unmetric, the only social media content intelligence platform focused on brands.

Photo credit: Ryan Lash/TED