Quit Asking Me, “What Do You Do?”

Several years ago I attended a lecture by a well-published scholar. I don’t remember her topic, but I’ll never forget something she said during the Q&A session. She told the audience that when she was just five years old, an adult asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She recalled her response: “I want to be wise.” With a smile and a chuckle she told us, “I was a weird kid.”

If I had a kid who talked like that, I would be one proud momma. I doubt the then-five-year-old scholar knew she was supposed to blurt out the usual job title like “nurse” or “teacher.” Instead, that weird kid just spoke her truth.

Here’s my truth. When I’m at a networking event (which is rare), I get that here we go feeling when someone turns to me, gives me the up-and-down look, and asks, “So, what do you do?” That’s “life’s most dangerous question,” according to Joshua Fields Millburn. As he puts it, that person really might be asking:

How do you earn a paycheck? How much money do you make? What is your socioeconomic status? And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you? Am I a rung above you? Below you? How should I judge you? Are you worth my time?

Ick. . . After a few minutes of the exchange and comparison of job titles, I typically finish my free Chardonnay, grab one more hunk of cheese from the party tray, and head for my car. However, the next time I get this question, I might take Millburn’s suggestion: Change the question and thus the whole conversation.

For example . . . “What do you do?”

Thanks for asking! I write for fun, I have the love of a good man, and I’m happy traveling and living a life of discovery . . . What makes you happy?

I could get a blank look, an awkward pause, or “That’s great, but what do you do for work?” I still might cave and say a few words about my current job (once more . . . ick). However, I hope I can redirect the small talk and get my conversational partner to talk about what makes them happy or what they love to do. Maybe it won’t have a paycheck or status symbol tied to it.

Doing what makes us happy . . . Isn’t that worth talking about?

And being wise. Yes, wise would be cool, too.

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