‘So, what do you do?’ This seems to be one of the first questions you get asked at parties. Everyone is trying to ‘find their tribe’ or to pigeon hole you, so they know whether to pursue you for social or business advancement, or to ignore you as below their notice (or just plain boring). Proclaiming yourself as an accountant or administrator seems to lead to an immediate change of topic. Outing yourself as any kind of religious pastor, usually results in the other person looking scared and backing away. The minute you answer the question, you see some sort of change of expression on the face of the questioner. A smile means, ‘you are one of my kind’, or you are someone with an interesting lifestyle, or a useful connection. A blank face means, ‘you are definitely not one of my kind, and I’m not sure how someone in your profession could possibly be an interesting person’.
I’ve worked as and studied many things. When I worked in horticulture, people, upon hearing what my job was, would immediately ask me to diagnose the problem with their house plant. When I worked in admin jobs, people wouldn’t ask any more questions and might start to talk about their own job instead. As someone who has made various career changes, and who has done a number of tasks (like 3 months of scanning batches of supermarket invoices…) that I wouldn’t want to be categorised by, I find ‘What do you do?’ a frustrating question. If the question is just ‘what do you do?’ I guess you can answer either with your job title, or with whatever you feel most defines who you are. I recently helped a friend at a work seminar and she introduced me as a ‘photographer and blogger’, which gave me pause. I thought, am I really those things? Don’t you have to have reached some sort of benchmark before you can call yourself that? Do my 700 posts and 110 followers on Instagram qualify me? Am I waiting for someone on high to give me my identity? Who am I?
This might sound odd, but sometimes I imagine answering this question as if I were my cat. ‘What do you do with yourself?’ ‘Well, I spend most of my day sleeping under a desk and licking myself.’ Imagine asking a plant the same question, ‘Well I spend my desk slowly growing and flowering here in this garden bed’. Do we want to hear from people all about prestige (I’m a doctor) or productivity (I’m an engineer)? Imagine answering ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m a life adventurer’. That’s what I really am – a jack of various trades and not much of a master of many. More than anything I like to dip into different contexts, to infiltrate different sub-cultures and industries and know what they feel like from the inside. In a way it doesn’t really fuss me what I do, as long as it’s creative, practical and varied. I used to know a guy who hated small talk, and he used to bypass all of it and start in with some ‘deep and meaningful’ question about the state of your spiritual life – but that just used to freak most people out. I don’t think we’re ever going to do away with the question, ‘What do you do’ but for me, next time I’m asked the question maybe I’ll say ‘I’m a life adventurer’ and see where the conversation goes from there.