“So, What Do You Do?”
Photo courtesy of Michael Havens.

“So, What Do You Do?”

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Show Yourself

(This guest post by A.N. Ordinary-Human was transcribed by Neil Hughes.)

Hello, fellow human. I’d like to ask you a question: What do you do?

No, I don’t mean “what are your hobbies?” Or even your interests or passions. I want to know how to label you.

This isn’t a sinister thing, you understand. This desire to label you by asking you a simple question is just the way my brain works. Like all humans, I store concepts in my head. These concepts are broad, but they help me to understand the world with minimal mental effort.

A Shortcut

For example, my mental model tells me that the label ACCOUNTANT is likely to indicate that you are useful if I have financial questions. It also stores some extra information on ACCOUNTANTS. They are probably highly educated. As a stereotype, they are supposed to be boring. However, my life experience tells me that in reality they tend to be hilarious and fun, so I am surprised if meet a boring ACCOUNTANT these days.

Every time I meet someone, I have limited time to decide what to make of them. This is true for all of us. We rush to an initial judgement, so we can efficiently decide how to act.

Our brains require the answers to so many questions about this new person: Are we going to be friends? Do we have much in common? Might we be useful to one another?

None of us can possibly answer these questions accurately in a reasonable amount of time. Certainly not in every social situation. And so my feeble human brain has a shortcut: “What do you do?” This helps me to choose the most suitable label for you from my mental box of labels.

It’s likely that you’re roughly similar to other people my brain has labeled in the same way. This means I can, to a rough approximation, get a feel for you from just “what you do?” And this lets me guess at the answers to those more pressing questions about what our relationship might be.

A Flaw in the System

In many situations, this system works. It’s unremarkable. But sometimes we humans forget that this is only a system our brains invented. We can be tempted to think that these mental labels are more than just labels. That these labels actually describe the people we stick them to.

This is why some humans are surprised to learn that this legal adviser plays in a heavy metal band. Or that that professional gymnast has a degree in Advanced Quantum Shenanigans. They believe their labels actually describe reality, and aren’t just imaginary labels in their heads!

The Fear of Being Labeled

There’s a second layer of complication. Some other humans realize that others are judging them based on what they do. They are afraid of being labeled. And so they resist the application of labels.

But there’s no need to fear labels. They are not limiting in any real sense. They’re just convenient mental shortcuts that our brains like to use.

It’s interesting to think a little more about that feeling of surprise we get when someone confounds our labels. If we were rational, we would understand that feeling of surprise is a moment of growth: “I’m not surprised at you for existing. I’m surprised at me for believing my own limiting label system!”

That surprise is just what it feels like when my brain expands its categories. Of course an elite gymnast can be an elite physicist. How silly of me to forget and to believe my own imaginary label system!

A Different Perspective

If you don’t like to be asked what you do, perhaps this perspective may help you think of it differently. Next time somebody asks you, “what do you do?”, there’s no need to shrink back with fear at being pasted with a label that only exists in someone else’s mind.

Instead, this is a chance to get excited; you’re about to expand the box in their mind that has “your label” on it.

neil_authorbioNeil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at www.walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

51 Comments

  1. Catherine Chisnall says:

    I would say ‘I am a Sequential Scanner’. That would shut them up :)

    I have decided to make 5 year plans in my life- do something for 5 years (approximately) then move on to the next thing. That is what my CV looks like now- blocks of work according to type. Sorted.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Reminds me of this comic, which I have framed above my desk!

      http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2722

      • Catherine Chisnall says:

        That is perfect! A hoverbike, hm…

        • Hannah says:

          Ha! I that comic is great. I don’t usually stay interested in anything for that long. Although I’m hoping my home roasting coffee kick sticks around because it tastes so flippin good!

          But as far as what I saw when people as me what I do, I usually just laugh a little and say “A lot of things”. If they’re actually interested in the first place, they’ll say “Like what?” and we can have a nice conversation about what I’m doing at the time. If they were just asking because it’s an expected social convention, they’ll usually smile politely and you can move on.

          • Catherine Chisnall says:

            I don’t think I’m the same as other multipotentialites. Have you read the book Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher? She says that some of us are Cyclical, and go round and round from interest to interest and back again. Some of us are Sequential, and do something for a while, then leave it behind and move onto the next thing in a linear fashion. e.g. I worked for 10 years in special needs education, in various jobs and various locations. I really loved it, but can’t imagine ever going back as I’ve totally lost interest.
            I’m definitely a Sequential type, I’m not an entrepreneur bursting full of ideas and projects all at once.

          • Ross says:

            Why would you be the same as other multipotentialites? After all this is just another label. It must be relieving for most to fall under some category — I know it was for me, to know that I’m not necessarily doomed. It has always been hard to understand myself in context of so many that don’t operate similarly, and the ever shifting future I can’t see. Just because I have chosen to hop from interest to interest so far, will I continue to do that in the future? Can I still hope to one day find that one thing that satisfies all my ambitions and desires so I can finally put to rest all the others? Honestly I am still hopeful for this; I now realize that if it does, it will probably be a combination of multiple interests I have taken up, once I reach a level of proficiency in each of them that I can tie them together or discover an outlet that could use them in tandem.

      • Ross says:

        Because hoverbike! Ha — the last image contains one of my favorite math identities too — e^i*pi = -1. Very cool stuff.

  2. Madeline says:

    I’ll answer this question differently to different people. To the people I know who will take a joke, I say “I shoot things and do art stuff” because I’m funny (or so I like to think). But to those who really want to know, I’ll pull out the Multipotentialite hat and say “As a Multipotentialite, I do a lot of things. At the moment I’m doing Photography, Videography, and Graphic Design on the side”. If I don’t feel like giving the long answer “Media Producer”! Like I said, it all depends. Option one is my favorite :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Definitely a wise approach Madeline – I think we all modulate who we are depending on the context. (And I agree with you that the funniest approach is usually my favourite :p)

  3. Emma Jane Murphy says:

    I usually start with I have a background in graphic design , fashion design , interior design & even studied makeup.
    I use to discribe my self as hyper creative which people mostly got but think I’m flakey on things , as it’s not just one thing. I’m proud to be creatively savvy & currbtky I’m juggling my two sons , I’m studying architecture at uni & doing some event management. My mind never stops it’s a good things & a bad thing for sleep !

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Wow, that’s a lot to juggle! I’m always amazed at the things Puttylike visitors do, thanks so much for sharing :D

  4. Matt Aversa says:

    I usually tell people that my “current” job is… . I tell them that I have a lot of different interests.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Good approach Matt, having many interests is a job in itself, and we’re not defined by our jobs anyway. Good luck with everything :)

  5. Federico says:

    “I work for tractor’s certification” and “I check if papers are made well” are my short answers. I found no one for which one o these answers were enough. The long answer is something like: “Some testing station in the world make tests on tractors and then send the test report to me, I check if they made the report well and give them an approval number”. I don’t really like to answer this question, I think this job is incredibly boring (starting the 7th year of the same stuff), but I’ve no idea which label this could have.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      You don’t have to label yourself Federico. Perhaps you can talk about passions you have outside work, as well as this job you have. No label can really describe anyone, so no label can really describe you – the key is to remember that and not fear labels :)

  6. Hafiz K says:

    Funny how when I tell folks that I sell business software it’s assumed that I’m a computer whiz. They will then start telling me their computer problems :-). Luckily as a self-proclaimed multipod, I have built a few PCs during my time (though I’m a Mac fan at home). Why use a Mac some ask? Well, I’m an semi pro landscape photographer, videographer, as well as a classically trained pianist and electronic musician that uses hardware and software to satiate my need to create and compose (hence my my basement studio, and I helped my wife build her website and post-process her blog videos). My first university degree was in economics and finance, and was a certified financial planner and corporate fianance analyst. Oh, my Masters degree had a focus on eBusiness. And yes I’m a father too.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Hafiz, maybe you can help me with this computer problem I’m having…? ;p

      (I’m kidding, don’t worry)

      That’s an awesome set of skills and interests – and balanced with a family too. Keep it up and enjoy, you’re way more than “business software”, just like we’re all more than any label :)

  7. The short answer I tell people is that I am a part time social worker and part time videographer. I let people know I am transitioning into a full time storyteller, sharing my life experiences along the way through my digital media work.

    I guess it comes from when I was in high school and beyond but seeing all the different groups of individuals and how they labeled themselves was disturbing to me. More so because of the way I was treated if I was not like them or one of their group. In a word, “Bigots”. I decided early on I was not going to be a Bigot. I also have a brother that became a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident at 15. I was 23 years old and he was 18. I became his caregiver, we lived together and went to college together for almost 3 years. During that time I saw how people treated my brother differently, some good and some not so good.

    Throughout my early life experience I began to see many things that led me to discover who I am and want to be is not conditioned on my physical limitations, my occupational training, the school group I belonged to or even my religion or spiritual beliefs. I believe this is the reason I have had many acquaintances and few close friends. I refused to belong to or identify with any one group. It is a somewhat lonely place but there is a freedom I feel that came from that and even a strengthening of my character having gone through this experience. It helped me, helps me I should say, every day to remember how I don’t want to be treated and how I should treat others as I journey towards whatever goal is in front of me. This is my feedback and hopefully an encouragement to others.

    G. Tomas Corsini Sr.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like you’ve experienced a lot, and I love that you’ve found freedom through not letting yourself be defined in this way.

      Good luck with everything you’re working on at the moment :)

  8. Joanie Higgs says:

    I really appreciate your original perspective on that pesky, perennial question. The final sentence sums it up beautifully: besides shaping the questioner’s view of my personality, I can showcase my unique approach to “what it is that I do”.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thank you Joanie! I love remembering that even if we do the same job as a million others, we still have a unique combination of passions :)

  9. Lea says:

    Best answer I have heard was my friend the millionaire who worked hard to achieve it.
    He always answered ‘ as little as possible’. Intelligent but a little insecure.
    I have used it few times. Many people do not ask me that question they are busy talking about themselves.
    Sometimes I tell them I am builder of homes or I say I build bridges between hearts and minds.
    That is the philosopher in me.
    I remember a moment when I was 3 years old and words were used to define me, at once I felt limited aware of the space between myself and others. I felt the loneliness of being me.

    A better question could be what do you love to do.
    In practical terms it’s a silly question for reason you stated.

    Anxiety
    Our perception and the culture we have may be the cause of our anxiety.

    To overcome we must not care much what others think of us.
    As much as anyone tries no one will ever discern the depth of our soul.

    The only part of ourselves that counts .

    In my next life I will be an architect or a ballet dancer or both .

    Have a great new year…everyone

  10. neil barnes says:

    It’s a question I fear the most. I probably actually wince when asked. I’m a rubbish liar. Much as I’d like to say lap dancer / brain surgeon just to mock their question, I bottle it.

    Sadly, I usually give my general sociably acceptable answer as a designer which unfortunately provokes even more questioning about work that I left emotionally behind years ago despite professional quals and a career. Truth is I’m more of an illustrator / juggler / bass player these days, more often than not not for money but I think twice before being honest to avoid even more questioning.

    I’m reading another book called 60 Million Frenchman can’t be wrong. In the first section of the book it talks about the nation’s deep routed belief for privacy. Want be considered rude in France? Ask someone you’ve only just me their name and what they do for a living. It’s a definite no-no. If you would like to know those things, you have to get to know them and you’ll find out in due course.

    Neil, just upon last 5 pages of your custard book. Nice work.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, I love the idea of outright making something up, although you’re probably right that it’s not the best plan :p

      Is it not possible for you to be honest, while also mentioning your other passions? Being an illustrator/juggler/bass player sounds awesome, and surely anyone asking you further questions is just curious about that great set of interests?

      That book sounds interesting – putting it on my wishlist now.

      And that’s fantastic that you’ve read my book – thanks so much! (With my ‘official’ hat on: if you could spare a minute to give it a quick review on Amazon I’d be endlessly grateful – it helps a great deal.)

      Hope you got something out of it, entertainment or useful or both :)

  11. Neil, a great perspective on something that has been troubling me. I dread that question, and takes me somewhere new each time. I even ended up telling someone that I ‘do life’!

    All my bios are never ending, my cv is abnormal and I feel I need a label, yet hate being pigeon holed. I also struggle with not fitting in. I use Multipotentialite these days, but at this stage of general awareness that doesn’t give people what they want. I might throw in the Bipolar card.

    Now that I’m not employed, that’s even more confusing for others. So I just do what I do (which is whatever I enjoy and can physically do within constraints of time, space & body), and just let people figure me out. Instead of struggling to justify myself and what I do, I have realised that people who care will be interested enough to find out.

    Others can use a shortcut. I personally am always amazed by people. I’m not even sure if stereotypes exist.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That’s fantastic Farida :) I think the desire to avoid being pigeon-holed is so common, yet it isn’t something we really need to be afraid of: it’s just thoughts in somebody else’s head!

      As you say, you can do what you do and tell people the things you care about, and they will respond: we love to see what other people are passionate about :)

  12. For five years it was incredibly hard because I was a freelancer, writer, curator, business plan writer, stay at home dad etc. Then I took a full-time job again and it became easier because now I can tell people I’m a teacher. That is the short answer. The long answer is that I teach art, make my own art, write, blog and desperately want to start doing something performative again. But mostly telling people I’m a teacher satisifies. I know I do much more.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I love this answer! It’s all about being content with yourself, and you don’t fear the labels in other people’s heads because YOU know more – that’s perfect :)

      Hope you find time to do something performative – I’m sure there are lots of opportunities in 2016! Come back and share it with us :)

  13. Terry says:

    To me, the question “So, What do you do” is the most difficult part of having a varied skill set. We live in a world where everyone is so focused on having a refined elevator speech. To be able to convey what I do in a quick introduction without having people struggle to figure out what box to put me in is frustrating. My experience has been that people are much more comfortable with a single focused individual even if that individual’s skills lean towards the mediocre.

    A common practice for most people is the quick stereotypical categorization of an individual. From this, they try to determine whether you are an expert or a dabbler. So to not diminish what I am capable of I try to assess which skills I have that would best fit their needs and introduce myself accordingly. As a result, some people know me for doing some things that others do not which poses a real problem because it tends to limit my ability to leverage my working relationships.

    The irony is that the core of my skill sets is creative. And to be a creative, I believe you must possess a broad range of skill sets. Creativity is about seeing the world from many different perspectives that others normally wouldn’t. Those different perspectives are where ideas and creative problem solving exist.

    • The irony you mention is exactly correct.

      There’s a chapter in “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” that discusses how the creative process is viewed by a manager and by a maker. For the manager, the analysis and synthesis portion of the creative process is overlooked to focus on time and budget.

      A multipod’s ability to creative requires investing time to learn and experience new things, which just happens to contribute to the negative stereotype of being lazy, flighty and unable to focus.

      Great thoughts, Terry.

      • Neil Hughes says:

        Yep, these are both really interesting posts from you and Terry about the way in which ‘ability’ is also something people consider in these early judgements, and how it affects our relationships.

        Thanks so much for sharing – it’s given me something to think about.

      • Terry says:

        Hi Panayiotis,

        Thank you for the comment.

        I have not read the book, but it sounds interesting.

        I think the thought process that goes on when someone is attempting to establish their perception of what you do is coming from a managerial perspective. They are quickly sorting through who and what they perceive will best suit their needs – management mode. This thought process is why it is difficult to me, at least, to condense what I do into a tidy one liner.

        I also like the point you make about the negative connotations associated when a creative has a diverse skill set. It’s a catch 22 – the more information about the breadth of knowledge and expertise you have makes it more cumbersome for someone to process the information, and that results in uncertainty about what it is that you do.

  14. Peter Lukaszyk says:

    People like to measure you by one’s own yard stick.it happens to me many times,someone knows me 10 minutes and I hear…People like us can only work in factory for minimum wage.what can you do?then I want to scream.
    im sorry people like us? We are nothing like mate.I finished university,I have my own business,im electricin with qualifications up to 1000V.Im builder, decorator,boat builder who now applying for volunteer job in steam boat museum, I dont spend all my free time drinking and complaining how shitt my life is.but of course I cant say that out loud. yeah man what we can do…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This sounds like you have an impressive set of skills Peter. Business owner, electrician, builder, decorator and boat builder – amazing! I sometimes feel like I lack practical skills, and any one of those would be so satisfying to me – I hope you realise how impressive that all is.

      Hope you find a way to use your skills and enjoy them :)

  15. Elaine says:

    Ah, yes. An elementary lesson in map-territory relations. Always a good concept to have around.

    (It’s also important to remember that your own brain functions this way, too! A lot of questions become meaningless when you ask yourself, “why do I need to have this answer?” and get “So I know how to treat it.” It becomes difficult to argue about whether that painting of a pipe is really a pipe, when you realize that all you really need to know is that you can’t pack the canvas with tobacco and put it in your mouth…)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Exactly! This comment made me grin. Finding a new way to get “the map is not the territory” to sink into my own brain (and hopefully some other brains too) is precisely what I wanted to achieve with this post.

      Glad you spotted it :)

      (and you’re dead right about our own brains: hence my regular searching for ways to reaffirm these lessons to myself in new ways)

  16. CynthiaAyne says:

    I love this topic and the idea of looking at the question from the new normal “inquiring minds’ perspective! As you then really do have an opportunity to present yourself anyway that you would like to ie with humor, or randomness that blows their mind, or all of your creative flaky interests! Do it in the way that makes you feel good. And if you are also inclined to make them comfortable…you can add the reason I say this is because (which should then become a really interesting conversation!
    Good Job Neil!

  17. Lex says:

    Most times my answer is “Whatever I like/want.” and that seems to stump most people. Sometimes I play a bit and take one tiny task that I might perform in a year “I mow the lawn” just to see what that does to the way the other person rates my interest to them. And now I can also answer I’m a multipod :)

  18. Kelsey says:

    Thank you for the great article! I just graduated, so “What’s your major” was probably one of the worst questions, and now it’s evolved to “What do you do?” I designed my own major in college, so even that was tough to describe.

    Currently I just tell people I’m freelancing in translation. But I’m also trying to shift in web development, so I’m mostly working on those skills. Many people I talk to don’t completely understand freelancing, so I tend to just leave it at that and not add in my other projects to the mix.

    But I’m kind of in a transition stage, so sometimes I tell each person I meet something different. ^^;

  19. Douglas says:

    I don’t like the question much, partially because it seems to me to be a superficial question and I can’t answer it superficially. Everything I do is directed towards making the world a better place, but within that large mission, I am dedicated to working towards it by running comms at an international sustainability NGO, managing networks in Europe, North America, and Central Asia, creating and offering intensive courses on sustainability ethics and communication, teaching improvisation, storytelling, and teambuilding, leading an art therapy group, producing, directing, and acting in theater, studying different stuff all the time, on top of nurturing and caring for a single mother and her four daughters. Where does any of that fit into the answer to the question? I generally understand the question to mean “What is your job?”, which is also a superficial way of getting to know someone, especially outside of a work or networking environment. In DC, that’s all people ask, and they lose interest if your cause or position isn’t something of use. It seems to me that classifying people according to their job isn’t all that useful, but perhaps it serves a purpose for a lot of people. I prefer to ask and be asked “What’s your story?”, which leads to a different way of thinking about ourselves that to me is a lot more useful in learning about a person or telling someone else about me. Thanks for the post.

  20. I don’t FEAR labels, but I often find it difficult, cumbersome, or confusing to try to explain myself to people, so I find myself avoiding it. Other times, I tell them I’m a Multipassionate World Changer and wait for their reaction.

  21. Mark says:

    What I noticed with myself is that is felt stuck on the question because I would try to find an answer in a noun or a verb. But that was so dependent on the moment and even on the person who was asking the question, that I often felt confused. It was so dependent on the context.

    Lately I started to realize that the true answer in my case is not a noun but an adjective. The best way to describe myself is Curious. That was the main motivator in being a graphic designer, in being a journalist and writer of in being a sparring partner for professionals.

  22. Ema says:

    My answer is “I’m a writer.” To which there are always follow up questions such as “What have you written, maybe I’ve read it?” So I tell them that I’m a writer, as in I write. I have nothing published because once I finish a first draft I usually decide it’s boring, so I move on. Truthfully? I suck at writing, but I love it so much that I will keep on writing awful stories until the day comes that a hidden gem will reveal itself. One day I won’t suck. Lol.

  23. Shane Drayton says:

    @Neil Hughs

    I love this! This has now flipped a switch in my head for the excitement in telling people what I do or did.

    I recently ended almost a decade in the Army just over a year ago and everyday when I meet people they ask the infamous question, “What did you do or what was your job in the Army?”

    Id sigh and either make up a broad industry like “logistics” or say “paratrooper”- which was merely just another skill and side job.

    I had a very rare and unique career where the job I enlisted to do and spent 10 weeks learning, I never did nor was assigned to units that really needed that specialty. Which was 100% ok for me because I really didnt want to pump fuel into aircrafts (pertroleum supply specialist) ha. I went from being a “hey you” guy as a youngbuck to spending each year of my career in a different job and responsibilty, each completely different from the last and whole.

    As easily as Id love to say “Infantry, Pilot, Mechanic, Green Beret, Cook”, I cant!

    And before reading this article, I felt bad that I couldnt. But now when people ask, I can just plain out reply “I was awesome!” Smile, then if they are still curious just take a breath and let them know what all that awesomeness was about. Everything from landscaping with push mower with no motor only labor induced spinning blades to driving a 3 star General in a blacked out Mercedes in Germany on the autobahn going 144 mph!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is awesome, Shane – made me grin a lot! Have fun next time you answer the question, it sounds like you’ve done some incredible things, and I hope your next adventures are just as interesting for you.

  24. Bryan says:

    I have thought about this situation many times before realizing how the “what do you do?” question is just so boring and predictable. My favorite is when Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in Fight Club responds to this questions with, “Why, so you can pretend like you care?”

    I, too, feel like the question doesn’t do my character justice and aims to just keep the conversation at the surface level. I’m the kind of person that likes to jump in the water and go under and get to the more interesting details of peoples lives. I like the idea that I don’t have to fear this question as creating a socially stale situation, but rather, as you say, expand that persons label and mental shortcut.

    My solution: Push to be the first to ask the question, but instead ask, “What are you passionate about?”

    I think that sets the stage to get a more interesting answer out of people. You’ll most likely find out what they do and you will probably get a better idea of who they really are.

    Very interesting blog! Thanks for the insights.

  25. I tend to avoid job titles these days because they lead to preconceived notions about what I do, which often don’t map to reality. Plus, my job titles change so frequently that what I was doing yesterday won’t be the same tomorrow. Ok, I am exaggerating a bit. But, I find it more useful to talk about the problems I solve and who my customers tend to be. That is more stable and lives on despite title changes.

    Now I prefer to say that I help independent business owners be more successful.

  26. Cafowler says:

    The dreaded “what do you do?” Question. I avoid this question when possible because, nationally ranked gymnast, turned fitness professional, turned makeup artist, turned pilot, turned yoga teacher, turned wedding cake designer/baker, turned vehicle designer & customizer just makes me look like the most ADD, commitment phobic, scatterbrained human on earth. This leads to me trying desperately to explain how #1 A person could possibly be proficient at this many, unrelated endeavors and #2 that no I didn’t “quit” or give up on baking cakes or piloting or whichever endeavor caught their interest, but that I had mastered and succeeded in that area and promptly moved on to the next. I live in a “Go big or go home” “all or nothing” world. I am so happy to find this site and hear your Ted Talk. Now I know what I am.. I’m a multipotentialite to the max!

51 Comments Trackbacks For This Post

  1. To read - Beyond | Pearltrees