You know the scenario well. You’re at a party [playgroup, meeting, sitting next to a stranger on an airplane…].
The person introduces themselves to you, and asks your name. “Nice to meet you,” they smile politely. “What do you do?”
Those three (I know there are four there, but one’s a repeat) little words pack a mighty punch. “What do you do?” The weight of that question can be (although not necessarily is) enormous because it’s an easy label to place on someone- a way of categorizing and identifying ; a way to find shared experience from which to move forward. If you have a clean, clear answer [I’m a doctor/..an engineer/…a cowboy] you at least have a starting point from which conversation can flow. People understand ‘accountant’ and ‘policeman’ and ‘journalist’ and even if they don’t respect them, they at least understand what it means to be an artist (even if only in very VERY broad [simplistic?] strokes). If you’re like Tim, on the other hand, your conversations tend to go a little differently.
“I’m a geographer,” he would answer.
“Oh, so you, like, study capitals and stuff?”
“Not exactly,” Tim would reply. “I am interested in the effect that conservation and land use policies have on the social dynamics of agro-pastoralist populations in Eastern Africa, and in understanding the development and adoption of adaptive strategies that these populations make in order to mitigate loss and diversify their livelihoods.”
“So, did you see that game last night?” this stranger might ask.
The thing is, when conversation comes to a screeching halt (this doesn’t always happen, of course) Tim is able to either (a) find a way to describe his work so that it is more relatable to the listener, (b) fall back on the “I’m a teacher” aspect of his job or (c) some combination of the two, the end result of which is usually a very meaningful dialogue. He’s also a master in the classroom; able to command a room of 20 or so 18-21 year olds and engage them in lengthy and lively discussions on a daily basis. He keeps conversation flowing and makes everyone in the class feel that they are on equal ground- that their ideas are no more or less worthy of being heard than their peers. It’s inspiring to listen to him talk about what he does for precisely one reason: he loves his work and (generally) derives great pleasure from it.
I often wonder what it would be like to work at something that I loved; to have my career and passion be more closely aligned, or to be one and the same. Tim thinks that turning your passion into your career would kill it as a passion (e.g. sure you like SCUBA diving but does that mean you would be happy running a dive shop?). I understand the argument, but am not sure that I agree. It brings great pleasure to feel a warm sourdough being kneaded under my palms and will never tire of the smell of fresh baked bread so even if I had to work 6 days a week 9 hour days at my bakery, wouldn’t that be immensely rewarding? I find it soothing to read cookbooks and recipes, to plan meals, and to wander through food markets and if I could do that for and with people in a way that made healthier foods more accessible and familiar and if peoples’ health improved as a result, wouldn’t that be immensely rewarding? I delight in the opportunity to witness and engage my daily experiences (especially those related to my family and cooking), and in the struggle of putting words to them, and in the knowledge that people (even if it is just my family and friends) actually read what I write. I ask you, isn’t that worth pursuing?
When someone asks me what I do usually respond “I do obesity research,” but I think it might be time to change that answer. Sure, that’s what I do so that I have health insurance and can pay the bills, but that’s not how I want to be defined; it’s not what brings me pleasure and not where I want my energy focused all the time. Nor do I want to encourage this in other people, the feeling that they must be identified by their career, that this [their job] somehow defines them in a way that is more valuable than any other piece of information I could learn about them. So the next time I meet someone I am going to look them straight in the eyes and say, “It’s nice to meet you. What made you laugh today?”