I’ve always found it hard to answer the question: what do you do? In fact, I try to avoid the question entirely. It forces me into a box, forces me to choose a path, forces to define me.
It’s not that I think I’m beyond definition. It’s just that I couldn’t possibly define my interests, passion, even my business, in one sentence.
I was recently at a meet-up where networking wasn’t the focus. I mean, everyone kind of knew we were there to network, but the mood of the event was more casual, more just about saying “hey” and seeing if you could connect with someone on some level.
So I was in the middle of a conversation about nothing in particular, when a purposefully “business casual” dressed man came over. He was wearing dress pants and a jacket, and a shirt with no tie. His hair was combed back and he had a few deep “character” creases on his tanned face. This dude was slick.
He looked me in the eye.
What do you do?
I stammered. Like I said, I have always found it hard to answer that question. Even now, when “what I do” is more aligned to how I see myself than ever.
Umm, I kind of do web design and development.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth when Slick Dude turned to my other conversation partners. He fired off “What do you do?”s to all of them in sequence, machine-gunning the question out in rapid fire and not really acknowledging the response.
He then paused, and inevitably I sent back the only question that fit. Yes, I asked him what he did. As some sort of automatic response. And to be honest, I don’t even remember the answer.
Slick Dude was someone who was clearly a veteran of Networking. With a capital N. But you know what? He might as well have just come over to us and blurted out a whole lot of gibberish. Because what he said didn’t MEAN anything. He was only interested in connecting with us on a kind of superficial, occupation-based level. He didn’t discover anything interesting or unique about us from that question.
But what’s more, he didn’t endear himself to us. At all. I had no real interest in getting to know him as he clearly wasn’t interested in getting to know the real “me.”
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe he was just making small-talk, an icebreaker to ease into conversation. But after he had fired off his questions, he didn’t follow up with anything else. I felt like he’d pigeonholed me into my profession, making a snap judgement of who he thought I was, then decided I wasn’t worth talking to.
In a way, though, I feel that my reaction to Slick Dude is my fault. I should be able to confidently sum myself up in a sentence or two when asked that dreaded question. You know, just to play the game.
But the problem is either that I do too much, or that I’m not focussed enough. Someone once said to me:
Maybe your thing is that you can do lots of things.
I keep thinking about this. Is this the constant dilemma of the jack-of-all-trades? I’ve never been the best at any one thing, because I can’t stick with it for long enough. I always want to learn more, so I get to a certain point with something, until I can do it adequately, then I move onto the next thing. There’s always something else shiny that catches the corner of my eye, that I simply must try out.
Like many others, I found solace in Barbara Sher’s writing about Scanners. In her book Refuse to Choose!, she identifies scanners as those who have a multitude of interests and passions, and feel pulled in all directions by them. She gives us scanners permission to follow these interests, with the knowledge that many of them will die out once we have pursued them for a little while. She encourages the keeping of a “Scanner Daybook,” in which we can record our dabbling with every interest.
So this is what it comes down to. Accepting that I am always going to be interested in a smattering of different things, and may never feel settled or fulfilled with one particular thing. That not only is it OK, but it may in fact be a strength. A unique ability, not a liability.