what do you do?

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.”


{awkward silence}

“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?”

– kjd


9 thoughts on “what do you do?

  1. Great post! I often find myself rethinking how to respond to the “what do you do?” question as well. I’ve tried repeatedly over the past few years to re-edit my “elevator speech” in response (you know, the 2-3 minute response you could give from, say, the fourth floor of a hotel to the lobby?). Anyway, I think you offer a great alternative, and in addition to the ‘what made you laugh today?’ I offer: “What are you passionate about?” “Who or what most inspires you to do what you do?” “What gives you true joy?” “What was your best day in the past week and what made it so?” or “When was the last time you laughed ’til you cried?” THOSE are conversations I’d love to have with people!


  2. Kiyah –
    This post really resonates with me, in fact, one of the posts I have rattling around in my head is on this very topic. I am someone who hates that question. Really, I dread it. Not only is it boring and been done way too many times, but it has ZERO bearing on who I am. Yes, I work 40 hours a week and I have friends at work, and it occupies brain space, but that about covers it. I have never been someone who felt passionate about pursuing a career in anything specific…and I think our society has become such that we are made to feel ashamed of that in a way.
    Anyway, I love your idea, and I will use it!


    1. Allison-Thanks for your comment.
      I agree with you 100%- the importance that is placed on what we do and not who we are leaves me feeling a little empty inside. This is not to say that I never find fulfillment in my current line of work, or that I always find it outside of work, I just mean that my career is not ALL of me. With that said, I do still wonder if I would feel differently if my work was something that I wanted to be a larger part of defining me. Maybe we’d love it!
      And I have some ideas about weekly meal planning. Perhaps I’ll start a weekly post about this and maybe it’ll help motivate you (as per your “Re: Goal Weight” post. Maybe.


  3. Whenever anyone asks me ‘What does Rusty (my husband) do?’
    I respond, ‘he makes me smile everyday.’
    I usually get a kind smile with a little eye roll and then a pause. So I say, ‘and he’s a musician…but that’s not what pays the bills.’
    Again, an uncomfortable smile and pause to which I continue, ‘it’s hard to answer that question because he has intentionally chosen a job with a small ‘j’ so that he can have enough money and time to do what makes him smile outside of ‘working hours.’
    Sometimes that is enough and people ask, ‘oh what makes him smile then?’ but often I can still see the dissatisfaction with my answer and so I finally respond, ‘To pay the bills he blah blah blah.’
    I’ve taken to asking, ‘what do you do for fun?’ I love your and your dad’s suggestions and I’m going to give them a shot!
    Keep this good stuff coming Kiyah!


  4. Kiyah,
    I was waiting for the part about being a mother, and it never came, so here I am! Stay-at-home mom to the rescue! I haven’t worked (like, for a paycheck) since August, yet I have just finally become a little bit okay with my answer being, “I take care of my daughter,” without adding, “and I do a little bit of freelance work on the side.” I know this is a whole other post, sort of, and it’s not exactly a new idea, but man–why do I feel embarrassed to tell people that I don’t have a job other than caring for the girl? I guess I get too wrapped up in the possibility that the other person will imagine me doing laundry (which I do) and talking on the phone while my daughter watches Spongebob (which she doesn’t, but why do I even feel like I have to point that out anyway?) Rhetorical questions to which I know the answers, but the point is, I also kind of hate the question for maybe a different reason, but also begun to make peace with my answer.
    Because…I DO define myself by my job. It IS my identity. And I DO feel unqualified, unmeasurable passion for what I do. So mostly, I feel really, really lucky to do what I do, and I must say, the product I am working on is pretty fabulous. 🙂


    1. Monica-I was quite pleased to read your response. So pleased, in fact, that it will be the topic of another post soon. Thank you for reminding me of that other job that I have…and love!


  5. I am lurking and loving the comments. I have many thoughts on this topic but way too scattered to actually put them down in writing. But as usual, its an awesome post. Thanks for keeping the conversation going!


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