So, what do you do?
A deceptively complex question!
I recently attended a Meetup. Outside a small core group, everyone was new. After a customary hello, the first question everyone asked each other was: What do you do?
The most common response started with — “Well…[explain… explain explain…]. This went on for 3–4 times each time until someone from the core group, who was observing with amusement, exclaimed — “this is always so hard to explain isn’t it!”.
We all agreed.
The irony was that most people on the table were self-employed consultants who had come there to network. One would’ve thought that of all people they’d have their elevator pitch and value proposition down pat!
I was surprised how all of us found this question so difficult to answer and that we all displayed the same pattern of using wide elaborations and analogies instead of a concise answer.
Why is this question so difficult to answer? Because it cuts across many dimensions of our personality and (projected) image.
What do we do?
The answer to this question depends on two factors: how well-known our job is and how much the person asking knows about it.
Sometimes the answer is a work classification or title that most people know about — chef, rugby player, lawyer, nurse, doctor, engineer, CEO etc. People who belong to different fields will have a general idea and will accept without questioning. Anyone working in a relatively similar field, or anyone mildly curious, will want to investigate more.
For example, if you someone you teach at University, it should suffice as a reasonable descriptor. But if the other person is an academic, then it becomes a matter of precision — Lecturer? Senior Lecturer? Adjunct Professor? A difference, trivial to many, can be vital for some.
Sometimes the elaboration is short e.g., Project Manager at Medium, or Technician at Fiat or Vice President at Citibank etc. Sometimes the elaboration goes on and on until sufficient data points are either provided, or elicited by us, to build a picture of the other person. I say sufficient because the information provided could either answer the question or indeed be enough to put us off any further investigation. If someone specializes in Sierpinski Carpet Fractals, then most of us will be moving on to next topic very quickly, satisfied that the person is a whiz, well beyond our abilities!
What do we “achieve”?
Every job has a functional and non-functional component. The functional component is the role. The non-functional component is the context — the broader purpose of the role, the organization, importance of the work etc. Providing context is always helpful in getting a message across. For this reason, a simple discussion of “What do you do” goes very quickly from being a short direct answer towards becoming an elaboration of the wider context of the role, in order to make it relevant to the current conversation.
This has parallels with interview questioning. The hardest and most critical interview question is often that benign ice-breaker — “tell me about yourself”. It’s the first question that’s asked so we have to quickly take stock of the situation and condense a vast amount of information into a reasonably concise answer that’s relevant to the context. Since we’re not sure about how much detail the other person can understand, we adjust our descriptions in accordance with our instant assessment of what the other person [we think] will understand easily. A bit like 100s of sensors analysing a huge amount of information, compressing it for relevance and compiling an answer in real time — and all done manually!
Our Meetup was mainly comprised of consultants. Rather paradoxically, we were elaborating so people could understand more precisely. Beyond mere titles, we wanted to reflect the value proposition of our services, tailored to the context of the Meetup. We were dynamically adjusting our ‘external brand’ according to the context, and the conversation.
The answer we gave or the ‘facet of our professional personality’ we exposed required careful deliberation and dynamic adjustment based on our assessment of the other person’s perceived ability to understand, and their perceived importance relative to our anticipated future dealings.
The Elevator Pitch?
We have been raised in the world of the “Elevator Pitch” — that we should have a 30 second sound byte ready or a 40 character ‘Twitter Resume’ on tap so that we’re ready to kill on first impression.
A question like “What do you do?” should in theory be answered via a well-practiced elevator pitch. In reality, there is no Elevator Pitch. It depends largely on who you’re in the Elevator with!
What do you do? When we answer this question, we’re actually trying to answer how we (aspire to) add value to the world — relative to other person’s value system and relevant to the context.
Work is a means towards an end. The tangible outputs we produce help deliver broader intangible outcomes. Job titles are tangible and seem easy to understand. However, they hide the broader context of our role. When we describe our role in terms of outcomes rather than outputs, we start to reveal its value proposition, and, by extension, how we’re adding value.
“What do you do” very quickly becomes another version of “How do you want the world to view you”. This is a whole new ballgame.
What do you do? This question can trigger endless analysis and introspection. The deeper we go, the more our answer starts to change. In the continuum of things that we can be asked, from the mundane to the existential, this question starts to lean closely towards the ultimate questions: Who am I? Why do I exist?
So, after all the elaborations, the ‘umm’s and ‘aarh’s, if people can tell us “What they do” within 3 minutes even, instead of 30 seconds, they’re actually doing quite well.