Being a scanner, and finding an answer to the question: “What do you do?”

Flowers on the High Line, New York City

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.


8 responses to “Being a scanner, and finding an answer to the question: “What do you do?””

  1. Great article Tessa. About a year ago, I was struggling to define a niche and someone suggested Barbara’s book. A light went on for me and I immediately recognised myself as a Scanner. As a result I decided that I would define my target market but within that market, would have a few niches. It was such a relief. Good to have found another of my tribe 🙂


  2. Thanks for your comments!

    Dallas – you should check out Barbara Sher’s work. Inspirationsl!

    Suellen – I know the feeling! It’s a great relief to realise that not only are you not alone, but you can actually work WITH it, rather than against it!


  3. I just read an article in the paper entitled “Never Too Late”. It talked about how many people achieve “success” in their field after their mid 30’s. I believe this is what most Scanners suffer with – an idea that they should be “something by now”, when they could still be working up to their “thing” (which even if they never get to the supposed “there”, who cares?)

    The article referenced a book by Malcome Gladwell called What the Dog Saw. Gladwell suggests that the good news is that there is every chance that our best work is yet to come. He refers to a recent study by economist David Galenson, who found that, “contrary to popular belief, there is no proven correlation between age and peak creativity”. In the areas of film and poetry, some “geniuses” did their best work at the beginning of their careers, while others simply did their’s much later.

    The difference between prodigies and late bloomers is in their creative approach. Prodigies like Mozart tend to be conceptual people, meaning they start with a clear idea of where they want to go and then they execute it. On the other hand, late bloomers (and I suspect scanners) tend to be experimental – their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental. The down side is that the imprecision of their goals may make them feel they haven’t really succeeded (especially in our society that is so plan/goal/achievement driven).

    Here-in lies the Scanner’s greatest dilemma in answering “What Do You Do?”

    A tip I picked up years ago, is to create a two line description (the guy I heard it from called it an audio log) of what you do based on the benefits derived by your customers. Now before you jump into “But I do LOTS of things for my customers” or “I do lots of things”, just create a two line description for EACH discreet group of things you do. So in the case of my lovely experience of working with you Tessa, I would say something like “I help businesses get into social media and give them control over their website content” rather than “I build websites”. While the wording could be improved enormously, the idea is that the person who hears this is interested because more than likely they KNOW they could benefit from having a social media plan and have control over their website content.

    And you WILL have their interest because the next question they will ask is HOW… and that’s where a little preparation helps too. My main point is that for us SCANNERS, let’s have lots of audio logs that tell us and “them” how great we are!

    So for the next Slick Dick that comes along asking the WDYD question, you can reply, “well what aspect of my life are you referring to? Personally? Professionally? Spiritually? Really sonny, you have to be a little more specific because there’s ALOT I CAN DO!”


  4. Thanks Jewels 🙂

    Wow, Amajjika, that’s one epic comment! I love the tip of having two sentences for each group of things I do. That would definitely make it more manageable and, I suspect, would also help to focus myself in what I’m doing.I also think it’s definitely true that it’s becoming more acceptable now to switch and change careers later in life, rather than having the one job for your whole career. And the Internet is certainly helping to make that possible! Yay!


  5. I was once at an event where I knew nobody. Someone came up to me, introduced herself, and asked, “What do you create?”

    Making sure I’d heard her right, I said, “That’s a different question than ‘What do you do?’” She just grinned and said, “I know!”

    I then excitedly answered, “Podcasts!” And we talked about the people I’ve met and the things I’ve learned.

    If she’d just asked me what I do, I would’ve unenthusiastically answered, “I’m a web producer for a hospital.” But with a single question, she gave me permission to instead share my passion.

    What a great way to meet people and sincerely engage with them. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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