world’s hardest question: so, what do you do?

So, what do you do?

What a loaded question that can be! I remember dreading those social events where I knew I’d be asked. I worried I didn’t have an adequate answer, e.g. wasn’t doing anything important or interesting enough, or if I told the truth I’d open the door for more uncomfortable questions. I have worn many and varied hats over the years, the above photo represents only the past 10 and doesn’t include everything I did in those years.

These days I am not so concerned about my “checkered” resume. Everything I’ve done has prepared me for the current times in which so many of us are inventing our work. I have many friends my age far less prepared to recreate themselves, and feel fortunate that I am so multi-faceted. Enough about me though I am curious about you.  Let me share with you a few things that grabbed my attention on this topic.

The always refreshing Colleen Wainwright aka the Communicatrix caught my attention recently with these words:

It has been happening for some time now—probably since I shuttered my design business, definitely since I quit acting—but the polite and puzzled apologies that “I don’t know exactly what it is that you do” have escalated to a point where I can no longer shrug, laugh or otherwise play them off.“I write and I talk” is true, but coy. It’s good for keeping myself clear on my priorities, but is far from useful to anyone else.

“I do marketing consulting for solopreneurs and very small businesses” is true, but leaves out a lot. Like me, for instance. I mean, please—do I look like a marketing consultant? (For that matter, do I write like a marketing consultant?) By which I really mean, “Do I do anything that looks like a descriptor you’d find in a drop-down list titled ‘Employment,’ wedged between ‘Manufacturing’ and ‘Media’?” I do not. At least, I hope not.

Colleen goes on to describe her “inadequacies” and some of the many  “feeble” ways she has described her self and work. Her words and I don’t necessarily agree but the point is what she really does is not a one line answer and certainly not one or two words. What we do is sometimes many layered and changeable. I just changed my “title” and it too is vague, but that does not mean what I aspire to isn’t meaningful, isn’t BIG. To be able to describe what you do in a nutshell (the dreaded elevator pitch) is an asset, but perhaps not being able to is, as well?

Colleen ends her post with admitting she is not going to let it bother her. She’ll clarify and update a few bits but for the most part she’ll let the work speak for itself. She ends with her brief mission statement for which she makes no apologies.

”To be a joyful conduit of truth, beauty and love.”

Ah, that sounds very good to me. Thanks, Colleen!

I stumbled on another post with the same title as mine by Dawn Foster . She makes the valid point that often when we work at home as entrepreneurs or freelancers we are perceived as not really working. She gives three examples of ways she’s had this conversation and this one hits home for me.

Scenario 1: The goof off
Me: I work for Company X managing their online community.
Them: Never heard of Company X. Where is the office?
Me: In California.
Them: Are you moving to California?
Me: No, I work out of my home office over the phone and email mostly.
Them: Cool, I wish I had a job where I could goof off all day.
Me: Sigh

I have been through that one, and when I still cared, I cared a lot. Now I just shrug it off when I get off-handed comments about my lack of “real job.” Some people will never get it. Those people will not read my blog or work with me either and that’s OK.

Lastly I want to mention business cards. Here I am ready to order new ones, AGAIN. I wondered, should I bother. Perhaps I should just get my name and web address so I can still use them if I change my focus, AGAIN. I decided I will get the cards that have my new title Gwyn Michael Environmental Art & Design. That is me right now. If it’s not in a year so be it.

Business cards are cheap. I found this encouraging article that assures me biz cards are not dead. Cindy Atoji Keene says:

“Of course, any business card needs to be backed by a beefy presence in cyberspace,” said marketing consultant Kellyann Dinoff. “In a world where ‘Googling’ is a legitimate verb, if your website doesn’t sing, you might as well not exist – even with a fabulous business card.”

Oh great, now my website needs to sing!

What’s your story about what you do?


Can you sum it up simply or are you, as I’ve called myself, a Professional Dilettante? There is room for both in these times of change and everything in between.

22 thoughts on “world’s hardest question: so, what do you do?

  1. I’m just on the brink of starting a new business, and every time someone asks me what I’ll be doing, I completely freeze up and go, “uhhhh”. I don’t want to say “counselling” or “life-coaching” because those terms aren’t right and are too cliched. I try to explain it, but it takes a bit of discussion, which isn’t exactly helpful. To say I’m a headologist is the best description, but it also requires some definition (again, not helpful). I’m hoping that as I refine my business and lay out the groundwork, I’ll be able to get the “what do you do?” answer down to at least two sentences.

  2. I struggle with this as well. I’ve recently accepted a new full-time job so technically I have a ‘title’, but like was mentioned above, it leaves out other pieces that make up who I am and what I really ‘do’. I think when people ask “what do you do?” they’re expecting to be answered with “what do you do for work?” It’s kind of fun to answer back with the unexpected.

    In my case it might be “I’m an Internet marketing consultant but my real title is Renaissance woman”. It’s boring to do only one thing! But I do tend to get over my head and over-commit to the zillions of areas of my life I want to explore. Art, music, theatre, entrepreneurship, pets, family, cooking, business, the list goes on and on.

    I think it’s not so much a struggle to tell people what we do, but to feel confident and to internalize the thought that just because we’re not in a 9-5 at an office (or even if we are), there’s validity to our personal and career choices and every aspect of our lives contributes to who we are and what we really *do*.

  3. There’s some rule out there about the-longer-the-job-title-the-less-important-the-job. I have a hard time describing what I “do,” and I “do” so many things, so I usually reply: “Anything I want to.” If asked my occupation, I say, “Trophy wife.” That may sound derogatory, but it makes me laugh, mainly because I know it’s so far from the truth.

  4. Ellie I like headologist. I am not opposed to inventing new words and it happens all the time. Google comes to mind. I think if you can define headologist it is perfectly acceptable.

    I think like Lesley said it is about being able to own it. Having the confidence to say it, whatever it is, with pride. Another good point is that the 9-5 is nothing to be ashamed of and does not need to stop us from doing things we are passionate about. I think that there is an assumption that the questions must refer to or “JOB” but I don’t think so.

    I love putting the humorous slant on it Cathi! I was serious about calling myself a Professional Dilettante and it is written on one of those cards up there. I have also answered the question as, stay at home wife and housewife which is hysterical to me because the least of my talents is keeping house.

  5. This is interesting. I come at it from a perspective of NO formal education past a semester of community college and various workshops, a couple years admin work in the aerospace industry and two decades of holding down the fort at home (as everyone else gets their education and wins the bread). Being a physically transitional time even complicates things further. What do I do? I create…that’s about it. It’s awkward at best to describe to people I’ve just met, but on the other hand, I don’t meet that many new people, heh.

    I figure if I can keep my spirits up, my heart open and the creative juices flowing while I move through all this (months? years?) I may come up with a meaningful answer…or at least one that satisfies *me*.

    1. Spirits up and heart open is the key There. I have no doubt that you are on your way. Also part of my point here is that defining what we “do”. is a societal constraint that can be limiting to creative people.

  6. Great topic! I hate answering this question. I want to get through it as fast as possible, even though I spend so much time doing stuff that I find very interesting. Why is that?

    I think this fact relates to the fact that I don’t like picking favorites and I don’t like summarizing things (like saying what a book is about). I don’t like having to short-hand complicated things into a couple words or sentences.

    There are also other reasons behind it. For me (and I know many others!), there’s that huge feeling of judgment in the air when it’s time to say what you “do.” I think we often greatly inflate or even outright imagine the judgment, but other times it’s really there. “What do you do” can mean “How important are you?” or “Are you interesting or not?” and other icky things.

    Here’s something: 9 times out of 10 when I tell someone what I “do,” I instantly feel like a fraud about to be found out.

    But…I don’t want to play that game. I want to have a something to say that gives a sample of what I do during my days that I feel good about. Part of that is probably working through my own issues about what I “do” and part of it may be just making up a little description to have on the tip of my tongue.

    What I do is work related to creativity and community. Maybe that is my answer for now.

  7. This is, indeed, the world’s hardest question. People so judge other people by what they do and don’t do. If I answer the question (truthfully) “I’m a business manager for a two-room school and township treasurer” they get a glazed bored look in their eyes like it’s nothing important, nothing worth considering, although a two room school would be cool if you were a teacher or someone important.

    Isn’t the question more: what are we? As human beings, what interests us? What moves us? What challenges us? What encompasses us?

    I remember someone, once, after learning some of my background gasp, “I thought you were just a housewife from Michigan!”

    What’s wrong with being a housewife from Michigan? Why is that label so limiting, so empty, so uninteresting?

    I love it when we can see beyond labels into the fullness of who we are. Beond labels. Way beyond labels. And I love it when we remind each other than we are much more than we think we are.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking blog!

    1. Oh the judgments and imagined judgments. Feeling we must have an answer to this question and feeling like a fraud when we do.

      For my self I am realizing that defining what I do is more important for myself and does not have to be definitive. I like many am exploring what I live and how I can serve others with it. Do I put that on a business card?

      Managing a two room school sounds like a brilliant job to me, but being a housewife no less admirable. As Kathy points out only labels. When I said I jokingly refer to myself as a housewife, the joke is only in that I don’t keep house. I think parenting well and teaching are two of the most difficult and under rated jobs about there.

  8. I just recently started moving toward the direction that I want to be moving in, so I’m always at a loss at what to say when people ask me this question. After all, I still hold down a day job, and I have a side business as well.

    I don’t hate the question as much as I simply crave for the day that I will be able to drop my day job to pursue my passion and mission full time (in 5 months time, actually!).

    That excites me so much that by then, perhaps I won’t care what my label is, as long as I’m doing what I’m doing.

    1. If you are able to pursue your passion and make a living the label does not matter at all. I think that is my point. The conundrum is that we will still try to define it :)

  9. I hate this question and always have.

    In my past life as a retail caricature artist I would be mid-drawing and my subject would ask, “so what’s your ‘real’ job?” My “real” job???? As if what I was doing at that very moment was nothing at all. So what if it wasn’t a year-round activity, does it make it any less real???

    The truth is I did very well as a caricature artist, but after a while I didn’t enjoy it anymore and needed a change. But now the question is back and harder than ever because now I don’t even have an actual pay check coming in.

    It’s hard to stay upbeat about what you’re doing when it feels like nobody is listening, seeing, or paying you for it. I doubt myself all the time and wonder if I’ve made a mistake.

    The question makes me feel like a failure. Like I’m completely inadequate and I’ve amounted to nothing. Perhaps I’m extra sore about this subject because of an incident involving the particularly difficult (and drunk) girlfriend of my father-in-law this holiday weekend. Thank you for bringing the topic up and making me feel like I’m not completely alone in my dispare over this question.

    1. “It’s hard to stay upbeat about what you’re doing when it feels like nobody is listening, seeing, or paying you for it.”

      Oh how I know this. I spend most of my days alone creating work that people say they love but I am making no money. I write on my own blog where the comments are few. I have days when I want to throw it all away and get a “real job” but I don’t even know what that job would be.

      Most days however I wake up excited to get to work. I believe in what I’m doing and know my time is coming. No one said this would be easy and it certainly is not. “Do the Work”, Stephen Pressfield’s new book is all about this.

  10. Other people feel this way? WHAT! I stumbled upon this today, a day I vowed not to look into the blogging world and shift my focuses for 24 hours but I couldn’t resist.

    I feel this constantly, especially holidays with the in-laws. The feeling that peering eyes see me as a free-loader, gold digger because my partner supports my aspirations and revolving job “title”…because they don’t see or understand what it is I do.

    I am coming to a point in my life where I’m learning that the true injustice would be in NOT doing what I moved to do. The injustice lies in doing what is expected of me and denying myself fulfillment in what I spend most of my time an energy on. Even further, it isn’t fair to our families and peers…living with someone who isn’t at their full potential. By letting ourselves do the things lead our souls in the most productive way we and everyone around us prosper, not necessarily in wealth but in life. So the real question and inevitable question is not “What do you do?” but “Are you happy doing what you do?”

  11. Oooh, this question. Yes. Well, even though I’ve had in the past what could be considered an “acceptable” sort of job title (graphic designer), there are still plenty of people (my mom, for example) who have no idea what that means. I get a lot of, “Oh, isn’t it nice to draw things for a living?” Luckily, I’m used to such things since I heard a lot of the same in art school from my roommates—”You get to paint a picture this weekend. I have a 30-page paper to write. Must be nice.”


    If only they understood that my painting or brochure or website took just as much thinking as their papers and I knew it because I wrote my fair share of papers in art history class.

    Hello. Yes, thank you, I have to think, too.

    Once I made the decision to quit my agency job and go freelance, I got a lot of blank stares. What will I do? How will I make money? Don’t I have a baby to feed and a husband to clothe?

    So, my business cards are pretty practical. They announce that I’m a designer, illustrator, and maker. That just about covers it, but only on the surface. People who want to work with me will know what those words mean—to them. People who don’t get it probably aren’t meant to be my clients, anyway, no matter how awesome they are.

    I just have to roll with it. I know that I’m good at what I do, and after over 10 years of being a designer, I’m used to some of the commentary that follows at the heels of my profession. Heehee.

  12. Gwyn! I know you from the Art of Action course and have been admiring your art since I discovered your site, but I’m so happy to read this excellent post here. I love the idea of just saying ‘trophy wife’ with a smile, since I have the added dimension of coming from a fairly patriarchal Arab society where often my achievements are met with raised eyebrows and “bravo!”. I know they mean well, but it feels a little patronizing all the same. Inventing a title I think it also a great option, if one can be creative enough to think of something that doesn’t sound like a joke.
    For what it’s worth, I think what you are doing is not only beautiful but truly unique – maybe it defies categorization! It’s a gift to have the freedom to reinvent yourself, something many people are not able to do, for whatever reason. The idea of being multi-faceted totally resonates with me — in fact so much so, that I named my blog ‘Multanimous’ because I feel the word describes me better than any job title from my past, and my first ever post was an attempt to answer this very same dreaded what-do-you-do question! In case you’re interested, you can read about it here.

  13. I’m in that ‘starting a new venture’ boat. I’m re-committing myself to an artistic career, but I’m only just getting started. I haven’t produced any work finished enough to show or sell, and while I’m slowly getting comfortable with the title “ceramic artist”, I will occasionally answer the question with “waitress” just to avoid the inevitable follow-up question: “Where can I see your work?”

    I wonder, at what point will I feel like a *real* artist? After my first successful sale? After my first show? Is it too soon to call myself an artist if I’m not supporting my art habit with art sales?

  14. Ugh! I hate this question, too!
    Especially from strangers, who don’t have any context (unlike friends and family who recognize how hard I work).

    Micheal Port’s Booked Solid has a great little exercise for being able to describe what you do, that I mostly use.
    But for people who don’t live online and are not a little crafty it still makes NO sense: “I help crafters build (fun +) sustainable businesses” or, “I help crafters/artists become comfortable talking about themselves and their work”
    The other job description gets the funniest looks: “I handmade yarn from socially-responsible sources (like local farms + fair-trade co-ops)”
    Yarn? What?

  15. I agree Brigss, I have owned my own “bricks and mortar” store for almost a year now, and when I tell people that I own my own store, most of them think that I get to sit around all day doing a whole lotta nothing!!! I hand make all of the pieces that I sell in my store and I do EVERYTHING else that it takes to run a store, but still there are people out there that have no idea how much work it really is!

    Best wishes on turning your dream into a reality!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *