I’ve noticed that upon meeting new people or reconnecting with old acquaintances, the conversation inevitably brings up the question “What do you do?”
Perhaps the inquirer truly is interested in nothing but the job title, but I invariably hear “Who are you?” And beneath that, “Are you being useful? Do you exist meaningfully? Are you worth my time?”
I suppose I perceive those layers of meaning partially because I am projecting. At least, when I notice this question at the tip of my own tongue, my motive is to draw the contours of a first impression – to relate to you. Knowing what you regularly do with one-third of your day won’t tell me much, but it’s a fairly safe starting point. After all, a lot of people do structure a significant portion of their identity around their work.
And yet, I rather suck at answering this question.
As early as mid-high school, facing “what do you do?” filled me with a sense of inadequacy. Talking about my pursuits felt half a lie – I didn’t know what I wanted, vaguely realized that I didn’t really want what I was doing, and rarely felt like I owned my accomplishments. In contrast, my peers seemed to pursue their goals wholeheartedly. They sounded like they knew exactly what they sought, and often worked with unquestioning abandon towards their ambitions.
They acted passionate, and I felt envious. I never had it – that steady burning motivation towards a long-term objective. I was interested in a multitude of areas, but yearned for none. A lot of the time I was merely… performing. Getting there for the sake of getting there – taking the steps that were supposed to assure me a steady place in society. In all honesty, I was going with the flow of externally set expectations, so no wonder that “What do you do?” made me uncomfortable.
But at least I knew how to present what I did in socially coherent manner: in college, getting a Bachelor’s in Finance and Information Systems; then, looking for entry-level work; then, earning a salary as an Associate Software Developer – administering a database, creating reports and providing requirements analysis.
Let’s say you have no idea what the terminology in the above paragraph means. Or, you are familiar with the curriculum for that kind of degree and job description. In either case, they don’t really tell you who I was, or how I was actually spending my time. But they do communicate that I was following an acceptable career path for a young adult. On paper, I neatly fit into society.
In the past year, however, I changed my situation. Since leaving the finance industry to work for myself, I have developed a good idea of what I’d like to do for the next 5-10 years, and started cultivating the necessary attitude to be passionate about my goals. But I have NO CLUE how to describe what I busy myself with on a daily basis. I’m not sure where I fit anymore. The question “What do you do?” has been turning me into a blubbering puddle of self-doubt.
For example – I work more productively than I have ever before, but I do not have a steady stream of income. I am acquiring new technical skills, but am not attending any accredited programs with a clear certification of increased qualifications. I am in the midst of a long leaning curve, but there’s no well-established standards to measure my progress. My biggest accomplishments have to do with self-awareness, time management, and building a higher quality of life. How do I articulate something like that in a way that does my achievements justice?
The thing is… I now recognize that it is imperative that I do articulate it (thank you, friends and the small business blogosphere!) Why? Because the way I think about my efforts directly affects the chances of my success.
If I think of myself as “a beginner”, “an amateur”, “oh, just starting out”, “kind of a small business owner”, “discovering myself”, “not really working” – that’s precisely what I will be – scared to fully commit to my goals. Such thinking decreases my sense of self-worth. I end up selling myself short. I make it harder for myself to stay motivated through roadblocks. I hinder myself from conveying confidence and professionalism to my clients. By indulging in self-doubt in my definition of what I do, I sabotage myself.
So… I’ve decided to think productively. I’m going to develop a pitch that is honest, yet focuses more on my end goals rather than the ambiguous limbo of getting there. One that I will stand behind with confidence and comfort. A vision, of sorts, that I can repeat to myself until I live it. I’m sure it will shift and grow and that I will end up redefining it often. But it is important to express it, loudly and boldly. From now on, when someone asks me “What is it that you do?” I will breath deeply, smile and say:
I design, fabricate, and sell artisan jewelry. I write about my experience of starting a business. I work to create a sustainable lifestyle that enables me to be productive and fulfilled.
I know what I want, and I am reaching for it.