This is often the first question we ask strangers at networking event, in the Gautrain, at a conference, at a wedding, braai [barbeque].
On the surface it seems like an innocuous query, one we ask each other every day, a nicety we utter so we have something, anything, to talk about.
The majority of the answers are boring, soundbite-ish replies we have standing by at the ready, prepped for the next dinner party or networking event: I am a director of operations. I’m an investment banker, I am a regional manager. I am the CEO of of Who-Cares. Sometimes they throw in their qualifications, I’m a CA, a doctor, a scientist, I hold a Phd in Whatever, I’m a certified this or that, I did my MBA at This-so-called-Prestigious-Institution.
Truth be told, we regurgitate these canned answers because they are easy to repeat, trance-like and semi-conscious, over and over and over again.
Like fashion accessories such as designer handbags, designer watches, sports cars, we use our titles and job positions are accessories when answering this question.
No one wants to talk about their boring day job ad nauseam, but it sure is easy to state your name, rank, and serial number: it is easy to prove you are a cog in the wheel or a rung on the ladder, just like everyone else.
It is much harder, however, to talk about other, more important aspects of life.
It is much harder to talk about work that matters, about how you had to exert your emotional labour to make a person far much better than you found them.
So, instead of finding more worthwhile discussions, we go about our days providing lifeless answers to this lifeless question, our collective discs set to repeat.
Okay, so let’s double-click on this question: it is such a broad, salient inquiry any answer would suffice.
What do I do?
I do a lot of things: I drink water. I eat food. I write words sloppily on this web-page, I talk to and listen to amazing hardworking people, I people watch, I observe people.
They ask you what do you do for a living so that they can decide the level of status they attach to you.
Sadly, what we are actually asking when we ask this question, albeit unknowingly, is:
How do you earn a paycheck?
How much money do you make?
What is your socioeconomic status?
And based on that status, where do I fall on the socioeconomic ladder compared to you?
Am I a level above you? Below you?
How should I judge you?
Are you worth my time?
I think there is a better way to answer this dangerous question, though: by changing the question altogether.
The next time someone asks what you do, try this:
Don’t give them your job title.
Instead, tell them what you are passionate about, and then change course by asking them what they are passionate about:
“What do you do?” asks the stranger.
“I’m passionate about writing [or art, or mentoring local entrepreneurs, reading, or curating],” you say, followed by: “What are you passionate about?”
At this point, you will likely get one of three responses:
1) A blank stare;
2) The person will tell you they’re also passionate about X, Y, or Z, and the conversation will veer off in a more heartfelt direction, or
3) The stranger will attempt to recite their job title, to which you can respond, “That’s great. So you are passionate about your job?”
Eventually, you will both discuss the things you enjoy, instead of the jobs you don’t.
This exercise will remove the importance of job titles from people’s lives, and it sure opened me up to discussing with others my passion for writing, doing work that matters.
Think of this shift as changing a noun into a verb.
Instead of giving people a title [i.e., a box to put you in], let them know what you enjoy doing, what you are passionate about, and then discover what they enjoy.
The conversation will get into something far more interesting, and you will learn a lot more about each other than your silly job titles.
Maybe instead of asking “what do you do for a living?”, ask: “what do you do for the universe?”