“What do you do?” How to Introduce Yourself when you’re a Multipotentialite
Photo courtesy of scjody.

“What do you do?” How to Introduce Yourself when you’re a Multipotentialite

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence, Featured, Work

Most of us hate being asked what we do. I mean, how do you introduce yourself when there are a dozen different roles that you might assume on a regular basis and “what you do” is constantly changing?

Unlike your peers, you may not have one easy-to-summarize job title, or there may not be one company that you can say that you work for. Perhaps you’re in a position where you have a job that brings in the majority of your income, but that job in no way encapsulates everything you do or what you are working toward.

Almost all multipotentialites seem to struggle with this issue. It’s sort of the adult version of the Question, and for many of us, it is really is the bane of our existence…

Last week I asked you guys how you introduced yourselves in my email and on Facebook. I received so many smart, thoughtful answers. My suggestions in this post reflect the answers you sent in, but I would also recommend reading through the full list of comments if you want to see how other multipotentialites do it.

Context is Everything: Tailor your Answer to Who’s Asking

Most multipotentialites have a few different answers that they pull out depending on who’s asking. If you are socializing with someone who works in an industry related to one of your pursuits or has interest in that area, it might make sense to lead with that. Of course, you might alternatively prefer to spice things up by sharing something you are doing in a totally unrelated field. That’s another way to go.

When it comes to sharing more, consider their intentions. Is this a professional setting? Is the person asking a potential new friend who seems open-minded? Are they genuinely interested, or are they just being polite?

Moreover, how do you feel? Are you in the mood to dive in and talk about your work in depth, or would you prefer to just drop a one-word answer and move on with your day?

Sometimes I actually don’t feel like having a big discussion about what a multipotentialite is, and so I say that I’m a consultant or a web designer. Dropping an easy-to-understand/boring title provides an out, and allows you both to move on to a new topic if you want.

The beautiful thing about being a multipotentialite, is that you have so many different identities, that you can literally choose the one that sounds the most conventional and requires the least amount of explanation if like. But it’s worth sitting down and writing up a list of possible one-liners that you can pull out in different contexts.

Throw out a Feeler First and then Elaborate

Sometimes you are in the mood to talk about your work and share the true extent of who you are, but you want to make sure that the person you’re speaking with is actually interested and isn’t going to criticize you.

In these situations, I’ll usually throw out a feeler. I’ll say something that could both stand alone or be a diving board into further conversation if the other person wants to take it there. For example, I’ll say something like “I run an online community,” and then if they reply with, “What kind of online community?” I’ll elaborate. Or I’ll say “I’m a writer,” and if they say “What kind of stuff do you write?”, then I’ll go into multipotentiality, the blog, etc.

If you work for yourself, your feeler can also be a title that you’ve given yourself. Lately, I’ve been testing out “I’m the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike.” That sounds pretty good, and “Creative Director” makes more sense to people than “Resident Multipotentialite,” or “Chief Troublemaker,” (though a quirky title isn’t always a bad idea. Again, it depends on who you’re speaking to).

The “I do many things” Approach

Another way to answer the question “what do you do?” is to lead with your multipotentiality. To say something like “I do many things,” or “I’ve got a bunch of different projects on the go right now,” or even “I’m a multipotentialite!” (That’ll lead to further conversation, don’t worry…)

This is probably the most genuine way to answer, but often the most confusing for people, particularly those with a specialist mentality. It’s a good way to go if you pretty sure you’re in the presence of another multipotentialite, or you happen to be feeling confident and excited about all of your projects and just want to talk about them. It will lead to a discussion though, so you’d better be ready to talk about your various pursuits.

If you are one of those multipotentialites with a day job that doesn’t reflect everything you are working on, you can say something like, “Well, right now my day job is _____, but there are a lot of other things that I’m working on.”

The “I Help _______ do _______” Approach

Another option is to leave your medium/title out entirely and instead, talk about your broader Why or overarching theme.

When I use this approach, I say something like, “I help people who have a lot of different interests find ways of integrating all of their interests into their lives.” Other examples would be things like, “I help businesses tell their stories,” or “I help empower youth.” It doesn’t say anything about HOW you empower youth. Maybe you’re a dance teacher, maybe you’re a motivational speaker, maybe you work at a non-profit, maybe you do all three. They all fit within your statement, so it doesn’t matter if you use multiple formats.

Again, this approach will invariably lead to a discussion, so be sure that you’re in the mood to elaborate on all of the ways in which you help _____ do ______.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to answer this question for yourself. If you haven’t already, sit down and spend some time identifying who you help (your audience) and how you improve their lives (the value you provide). It’s a really useful thing to know.

Use it as a Filter

It would be awesome if this question would just go away and instead people would get to know you by asking something like, “What are you excited about right now?”. But until that happens, we’re stuck answering this awful question.

So, take some time and brainstorm a few potential answers for yourself. With time, it’ll get easier explaining what you do. But even if it doesn’t get easier, then think of your introduction as a way to filter good people into your life and don’t worry about the rest. Let them be confused about what you do, and then go off and have fun pursuing all of your passions.

Your Turn

How do you introduce yourself when someone asks you what you do?

19 Comments

  1. For me it really depends on the setting . I am a multipod that still works a day job (for the time being) and when I am in those settings that require me to deal with my day job i lead with that title. When I am hanging out with friends or networking I usually go with a Business Consultant or Business Developer. I can’t wait to transition from my day job to my business full time.

  2. Margaux says:

    Great article that sums up all the possible answers. (I’ve already written my answer on Facebook, so I won’t repeat here.)

    In terms of changing the starting question, here’s what I’ve started asking: “What is one ‘win’ you’ve had today/last 24 hours?”

    I’ve been asking this as an audio level test while prepping video interviews, but I find everyone has an answer and it gets them excited, putting them in a better mood straight off.

  3. Emilie says:

    Love it! I’m a big fan of tracking small wins. I should get back into that. Used to do it all the time.

  4. Ian says:

    I’m so pleased with myself for knowing what ‘overarching theme’ means :-)

    Your book was so much help to me to make sense of what I do (when I didn’t know myself!) I went from being a carpenter to “someone who helps people get the home they want!”

    Good post Emilie and a topic that will be evergreen for all multipotentiality!

  5. Tony D says:

    Hey Emilie,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I am increasingly impressed by how well you understand what polymaths experience. Sometimes, I believe you’re hacking into my life and writing a post specifically for me and my current situation. This post is another example. I just want to say thank you for your wonderful posts.

  6. Candace says:

    Thanks for the advice, Emilie! This post has come at just the right time. I’m still working on how to answer that question(s), and it usually leaves me flailing.

    When people ask me what I do, I typically say: “By day, I’m a proofreader for a design agency, by night, I’m a freelance writer.” The problem with this is people immediately ask me: “What kind of stuff do you write?”

    That’s the question I hate. Because I refuse to specialize, which is a huge source for criticism in the freelance writing community. I’m slowly learning to define where I want my business to go as in terms of the type of clients I want to work with, but I have no desire to limit what type of writing and editing I do.

    So I struggle with that answer more than the first one. I want to be able to simply say, “I’m a storyteller” and have people be satisfied with that. But alas, that may be wishful thinking.

  7. Bev Webb says:

    Aagghhhhh! I so hate the “So what do you do question?”!!

    Part of me fills with dread about how to answer it (in a way that makes sense to the enquirer), whilst another part wants to go into great detail and tell them everything. It’s soooo tricky to get the balance right.

    I sometimes just start off by telling people I’m an artist. It kind of sets the scene for them – they’re then primed that whatever I say next may be a little weird and wonderful. Great post. :)

  8. Rachel says:

    Great ideas! I had to deal with the “What do you do question” a lot last night. Luckily about 99% of the people I talk to seem to be intrigued that I do so many different things. I think the key is to not be afraid of what other people might think–they’ll generally be fascinated. Sometimes the people I talk to even start bringing up projects they’ve secretly wanted to explore but have been afraid to do. It’s inspiring to think you might be able to help motivate someone to explore other facets of their personality.

  9. Mel says:

    Awesome topic! and sparks the idea of answering the question back with? I’ll tell you what i’m excited about and working on right now and leave it openended unless they want to get specific.

    I also think if you have some testimonies or successes in your variety of interests can sound like you work on one project at a time and are successful at one even though you may be working on many.

    The thought of being a multipotentialite, also becomes easier when you have things that work together or overlap each other which i believe you have mentioned before and definitely craft a variety of 15-30 second intro’s depending on your situation helps keep you from sounding wishy washy.

  10. This question is a tough one for me too! So many good ideas here though, I really like your advice of throwing out the feeler first and then elaborating if there’s interest. I think I have a tendency just to launch into telling people exactly what I do when they ask, and sometimes it’s probably really not needed!

    I tend to tell people I’m a designer, but with my website becoming an increasing part of what I do I’m feeling the need to expand on what I say. Then there’s also uni and my part time job. When I do elaborate on everything I do it leaves most people saying ‘wow you do alot!’, but it also feels so disjointed sometimes when I tell it that way even though it all makes sense to me in my own world. I guess for me there is some kind of sense and a narrative to everything I’m doing. It’s likely not clear to others though!

    Thanks for your tips here Emilie! :)

  11. Ian says:

    Do you know Emilie this reminds me about something I read years ago in a de-briefing pack after I came back from East Africa. The theory is that you should be careful about how you talk about your experiences, when they deviate from the ‘norm’ (whatever that is!)because your choices, your experiences can ‘threaten’ choices that others make (make them look less interesting etc). In other words you challenge their ‘world view’ or their perception of their place in it.

    Although folks ask about your trip/job/life, out of politeness, be careful about diving in too deep lest you trigger their defence mechanism which will tune you out to protect their view of the world.

    Bit like the old soldiers that start conversations with “during the war”, after a while people stop listening.

    Oops! brain dump :-) It’s an interesting topic though!
    Cheers for now Emilie

  12. Nice post, Emilie.

    I love the “I help _____ do ______” approach. Time to get to work on figuring that out.

    Thank you!

  13. Liz says:

    Unless it’s a police interrogation (and even then) you are not required to answer anyone’s question. Of course it is usually to your benefit to be socially graceful so I like to turn it around to answer in a way that suits who I am. I really like one of the comments in the article; wishing the question was:
    What are you excited about right now?
    So, make it your’s. I would answer this way, ‘Well, right now I am pretty excited about….”.Much more interesting.
    When people ask you what do you do it’s usually just a way to make a connection (a human one, not a business one) and start a conversation. It’s just an opener (unless you are at an unemployment office!).
    Us Multi-potentialites are interesting enough to not need a drab and expected response. And so often they take the conversation only to talk about how good (or awful) the catering is.
    Of course there are plenty of legit and interesting careers that will make you want to find out more from your cocktail talk interactions: it could even lead to a new interest and direction.

  14. Lynn says:

    Icebreaker? Way to determine if you fit into their social class? I never know or care. I’m pretty shy and always seem to feel like answering that question is never really necessary. Somehow, over the last 50 or 60 years, we’ve felt compelled to know what people “do” to make their income. Who really cares? So…what I usually say, almost no matter who confronts me, is to change the direction of their silly question. I say, “Do? when?” Then I stand and watch them become confused. Then I usually say, “I’m really not that interested in what anyone spends their day doing to bring home a paycheck…I probably won’t ever see you at your Job. I’d rather know what you like to do for fun…when you are away from your job.” Sometimes I point out that typically when folks in the south meet, they almost Never ask that question of anyone. I have found this to be true in my life. A lot of times people will respond to my answer by saying they never thought about it that way, and then we end up talking about the fun things we like to do when we aren’t earning a paycheck. This is just my $0.02! Thank you for providing this platform to help people like us learn how to bring our talents together in a way that empowers us, and supports our spirit, our essence, and our soul. We want to know we make a difference in the world, and that we will be remembered when we are no longer in this space.

  15. Ian Anderson says:

    Don’t for get that some of us are lucky enough to make a living doing what we love Lynn! I am grateful every single day for the privilege of being able to earn a living doing what I’d do for free because I love doing it.

  16. Stebro says:

    When I was younger, I never knew what to say when someone asked “What do you do?” I didn’t like being pigeon holed. The response that got the most interesting conversations going was “Whatever I want.”

    Thankfully, I’m now of the age I can say – “Oh, I’m retired.” (Which is a lie but keeps things simple.) If they follow up with something like “Retired what?” I say “Retired businessman.”

    If they keep probing I just pick one of my numerous past enterprises that seems to mirror them somewhat and say “Well, for a while I owned a … whatever.” And, we talk about that.

    I remember once, in my early thirties, a fellow asked me to come to his office for a conversation. I was working as a financial consultant for a brokerage firm next door and was on their board of directors. He wanted me to buy him out of his portfolio of local investments. “What exactly is it that you do?” he asked. That time I just stood mute before him.

    He looked at me for a bit and said, “Whatever needs doing, right?” He was right and that’s a fact. I still remember the incident over thirty years later.

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