Question the Question “What Do You Do?”

It seems like “What do you do?” is usually about the first or second question I get asked when I meet someone new. It’s a question we’re faced with constantly, and yet I still struggle to improvise an answer each time as if I’ve never been asked before. Part of that has to do with the fact that I used to have a job that could be summed up with a single word. I was a teacher, plain and simple.


But I quit that job a year ago in part because I didn’t like being able to sum up what I do in a single word. Now I earn my bread with freelance writing, teaching the occasional yoga class for kids, and babysitting a friend’s baby from time to time.


So then I’m asked what I do and I make the choice to say one of my jobs, or to mention more than one of them, or to casually answer with “this and that.” The truth is, though, that none of these answers feels like an adequate response to the question.


I quit my job in large part because I felt there was a problem in my work/life divide. I was waking up at 5:00 AM and getting home at 5:00 PM. All the things I wanted to do with my time – writing, working out, cooking, learning new skills, seeing friends – these were quickly becoming things I either had no time for or no energy for.


Now I find that actually do have time for these things. What do I do? Well, I wake up and make a pot of tea. I go to yoga. I write. I read a lot more books than I used to. I eat well and have started to cook for myself. I take naps. I spend quality time with the cat. I see my friends. But are these the right answers to the question “What do you do?”


I’m not alone in my desire to shake off 9-5 workday with all its Sisyphus-like redundancy and the sense of inevitability that comes along with it. We’ve been prepared for such a life for years, our parents loading us onto the yellow school bus each day before they, with just as much dread, headed off to the office.


More and more individuals are opting out to whatever extent they can. The new “gig economy,” much described in think pieces and blogs, consists of those who don’t want what they do to be who they are, and don’t want to do it all the time. These are the Uber drivers, the freelancers, the craftsmen selling their wares online. A study conducted by Intuit predicted that nearly 40% of the American population will be independent contractors by 2020. The trend in this kind of work is clear.


How we work goes to the very heart of how we live. In this sense, what we do is an extremely important part of who we are. Changing my relationship to work has changed every other facet of my life. I have come to feel that my time is more valuable. I have come to be more responsible with my money knowing that I am fully in charge of it – there is no boss who is going to hand me a paycheck every month. I have to secure my own work and handle my own finances.


I also have to manage my own time. No one is cracking the whip. I still wake up early, just like I used to, to do work on my computer. I find that this ability spreads to other elements of my life as well.   I used to feel compelled by outside forces to go to work. When I got home, I felt compelled by inner tiredness to collapse onto the couch with a bowl of cereal.   Today I don’t feel compelled by anyone or anything – it’s a sense of freedom that allows me to manage my time more productively. I find that I simply don’t have a need to collapse onto the couch for hours of recuperation anymore. Even my leisure time has become more productive.


There are plenty of individuals out there who define themselves through work. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A person’s career can be intense and meaningful. They should absolutely have a chance to talk about it. But there are others who feel differently. For people with jobs they don’t like, and for people who don’t define themselves through their jobs, the question “What do you do?” can be a taxing social test.


If work is the main activity of life then this is the most relevant piece of information that you will be judged on. Heaven forbid you don’t answer with a job that’s glamorous, high paying and socially relevant.


It seems to me that this is reason enough to make the choice to retire the question. I personally have stopped asking it – at least not explicitly. Finding a question to replace it has proven difficult, however. I tend to focus instead on place. Living in a city of many transplants, I ask people where they are from and what brought them here. The answer to this question is complex. Sometimes it includes information about work, but just as often the answer will get at something a bit deeper.


As for how I answer the question myself, I’ve simply started interpreting it different. When I hear “What do you do?” I ask the person if they really want to know. If they say yes, I tell them what I do, but not necessarily for work. It’s not an answer that can be summed up with a single word or two, like a job can, but perhaps that’s a good thing and makes small talk just a little less small.