This is becoming an increasingly difficult question to answer, these days. In the old days, you answered with your job title. I’m a designer, or a software developer, or a guitar player. Your answer was about what you do, not why you do it.
These days, people have many more strings to their bows. They have portfolio careers. Even inside the confines of a corporation, a job title is a barely adequate answer, because their role may actually involve many diverse responsibilities. The job title alone doesn’t do justice to describing what they do. Often, their passions, hobbies and interests, the things they pursue outside of the normal framework of a job, are just as defining as their job title; perhaps more so.
But here’s the problem: “I’m a songwriter, musician, painter, writer and software architect” is too long and confusing an answer to the question, “What do you do?”, even if that is what you do. You confuse the listener, who finds it difficult to ask the next question. Alternatively, you answer the question by limiting yourself to admitting only to your day job only; thereby minimising what you’re all about. Either way, the chance to make a connection is lost. The conversation peters out.
What if you began to answer the question not with a statement of job title, but with a description of your mission? Let the answer be about your motivations and what ties all the things you actually do into a cohesive whole. It might take some thinking to work out what being a songwriter, musician, painter, writer and software architect have to do with each other, but I guarantee there is a connection.
Imagine if instead of saying, “I’m a software designer”, or listing a long laundry list of activities (“I’m a songwriter, musician, painter, writer and software architect”), you made a statement like “I’m trying to change the world through creativity. I think the world’s problems can be solved by being as creative as we possibly can, as a species, and I’m trying to get people to see that possibility”. How would the conversation go, then?
I confess, some might back away slowly and carefully, in the realisation that they are in the presence of an unhinged lunatic. Others might be interested to know in what ways you are trying to change the world. That’s when you can talk about your art, your writing, your lyrics and the software you design, the philosophy of empowering and awakening people that underlies it all and maybe develop a relationship (e.g. a friendship, a contact, a business relationship, somebody that can help you or somebody you can help, a customer, a mentor) with the person you’re talking to.
In any case, you’ve been true to yourself in answering the question and stating what you do, without minimising the scope and range of your interests and activities. You have also avoided overwhelming the person who asked with a seemingly unconnected and perhaps bizarre list of activities (leaving them thinking “Jack of all trades, master of none”). Instead, you have used the question as an opportunity to portray your whole self and stated what motivates you and makes you live. In so doing, you’ve opened up a conversation instead of shutting one down.
Too often, we mumble the answer to the question, “what do you do?”, or worse, we change the subject or say something trite like, “I don’t like to talk about it”, or, “you wouldn’t be interested – it’s very boring”, or something clichéd like, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” These question avoidance tactics are a guarantee that the conversation will end and your opportunity to actually fulfil on the mission that drives everything you do will be utterly thwarted. One less recruit to your cause.
Next time somebody asks you what you do, treat it like an opportunity to spread the word and to drive your purpose in life one step further.
Answer, “What do you do?” with, “What I am doing is…”