“So, What Do You Do?”

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Career Frog

I used to cringe whenever someone asked me, “So, what do you do?” at a party or conference. I never had a good answer because the true answer was and is, “Whatever I feel like at the moment,” which isn’t exactly socially acceptable. While I’m primarily a writer, that’s not all I do and, until recently, I was reluctant to even claim the title of “writer.” I’m supposed to have a normal career, or be staying home with kids. I don’t do either. By society’s standards, I’m a bum, a leech, or just a very weird person.

It’s not that I don’t work. I do. But I do so many different things for so many different people on so many different schedules that nothing I do can be considered a “real job” or even a career. It’s simply a string of things that fascinate me and pay me money. I’m a freelance writer in a variety of fields, a novelist, a board game reviewer, a website designer, and a graphic artist and photographer. I also dabble in web comics and board game design. Stuff that doesn’t pay but takes up my time includes cooking, managing the household, dealing with the finances, exercising, reading, taking classes, indulging my passion for films, and traveling. In short, I do whatever I want to do, when I want to do it. For the most part.

None of this fits into a ten second soundbite, however. When someone asks, “What do you do?” they just want to hear a quick answer so they can determine whether or not you are worthy of their time and attention. They don’t want a dissertation. And while they might ask how I got into such a life (if they stick around long enough), they really don’t want to know the answer to that, either, because it doesn’t fit into their frame of reference about how life should be lived. Most aren’t willing to do the work and make the sacrifices required to get where I am. It’s easier and less threatening to pretend that anomalies like me don’t exist.

When someone asks, “What do you do?” they just want to hear a quick answer so they can determine whether or not you are worthy of their time and attention. They don’t want a dissertation.

And how did I get here? I knew early on that working in a cube farm was not for me. I hated everything about it, from the stress to the office politics to the sitting-still-for-eight-hours-and-looking-busy thing. Chasing promotions and smacking the glass ceiling made me miserable and sick. So I decided to buy my freedom. Long before early retirement was cool, I saved every penny I possibly could and saved up enough so that I could live off my investments and some extra cash brought in by my variety of “jobs.” I lived very low to the ground (still do, actually, but it’s not a life of deprivation) and avoided lifestyle inflation and debt. I “retired” young and have been doing whatever I want ever since.

Try to explain any of this to most people, though, and I get blank looks or thinly veiled criticism. “Oh, so you’re a bum,” said with a small laugh, or, “That’s not possible. You must have gotten an inheritance.” Or, “You’re so lucky.” As if luck had anything to do with it. And my all-time favorite, “What a waste. You’re not contributing to society.” Right, then. Not much I can say to that.

All of this used to make me hate social events because I knew the, “What do you do?” question was coming and I wasn’t going to have a socially acceptable answer. It made me feel like a child trying to gain the approval of my parents, or trying to justify some troublesome behavior. I used to mumble something like, “Oh, I freelance,” or, “Oh, I’m sort of a writer,” and then I’d shrink down, knowing that my half-answers didn’t make me interesting to anyone. I even went through a period where I considered lying and making up some job, any job, just to get past the discomfort of the question.

What I don’t do is demur or apologize for myself. I have nothing to hide or apologize for.

And then one day it hit me: Why did I even care what any of these people thought about me? Why was this bothering me so much? It wasn’t like I was bothering anyone, asking for a handout, spending their tax money, or requiring any support in any way. I was just grooving along, doing my own thing, which happened to be different from theirs. Anyone who was so quick to dismiss me likely wasn’t worth my time, either. I realized: You don’t have to love my choices or want my life, but if you can’t respect that I have a right to live how I please, then I don’t think we have a lot to talk about.

So I quit shrinking. And lying. And mumbling. And thinking of snarky answers like, “What do I do about what?” Now when someone asks me, “What do you do?” I proudly say, “Several things. Shall I tell you about it?” and leave ball in their court. If they want to hear more, I tell them. If they give me the blank look, I simply say, “Nice to meet you,” and move on. Sometimes, if I have a big project that’s consuming most of time at the moment, I might refer to that, as in, “Oh, I’m currently re-writing the entire website for a major corporation,” or, “I’m working on my third novel.” I don’t refer to it as a full time job because it isn’t. But it gives people something to latch on to. What I don’t do is demur or apologize for myself. I have nothing to hide or apologize for.

If you’re in the same boat of hating the “What do you do?” question, I wish I could give you the magic words that will help you get over it. I can’t, though, because it didn’t happen that way for me. I don’t know if I simply reached a certain age and couldn’t take the BS any more, or if it was just a general level of maturity and contentment with my life that led me to fully accept who I am. Whatever happened, it was like flipping a light switch. One minute I was uncomfortable and the next I was basically saying, “Take me for who I am or don’t bother. Either way’s okay with me.” It’s a much better way to live.


(Photo courtesy of click)



1 thought on ““So, What Do You Do?”

  1. Mirka Breen

    My mother had a colleague who, while heading a whole department at a prestigious university, disliked the “what do you do” question as well. His stock answer was, “I’m writing a novel.” Rather a twist on the writer’s dilemma… No, he never wrote, nor intended to write, a novel. He just thought that answer closed the conversation quickly.


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