what do you do?



what do you do?

it’s another one of those questions, like where are you from?, that people ask all the time, so we know what they (most likely) mean, but if you stop and think about it, what the heck?! what kind of question is that?

even if you state the implied for a living? it’s still a kind of crazy question. begs the question of what do you mean by living?

livelihood, I suppose. pay the bills.

is that all there is to life?

well it’s certainly a big chunk of time every week for most of us. the regular day job.

I can’t find the exact quote, but John Cusack, playing hit man Martin Blank in Grosse Point Blank says something along the lines of I don’t necessarily think what you do for a living defines who you are.

and yet it’s one of those Questions that usually gets asked in the getting to know you phase.

it’s funny, I have this recollection from when I was a kid of my dad asking what other kids’ parents did. why would that matter? it even seemed sorta weird at the time, but I never thought to ask why he wanted to know. heh, well, I guess it’s not too late. and, writing that now, we did live in a small town, so I’m kinda surprised he didn’t already know.

anyway, I guess it is one way to evaluate or classify someone and decide whether they are worthy of investing more time in. the assumption that what you do for work is an expression of who you are, that it says something about you, puts you in a place in the world. which, I suppose it does. at least to the person asking the question.

I was flipping around on the radio the other day and heard someone talking about this (or at least related, I came in the middle of it and so didn’t get the whole story), saying that The Question used to be where we were from and who our family was – that information was a way to organize people. I’m not sure that “what do you do?” is an improvement. Perhaps there’s no way of getting away from that wanting to define people, nail down where they fit in to the Grand Scheme of Things. Whatever the hell that is.

Maybe since I’m not a big fan of answering it, I tend not to ask it. There are people who I’ve known for a while, or been on a long bike ride with, and we’ve talked about all sorts of things, and I have no idea what their day job is, if they even have one.


I realized as I was writing this that it’s actually a multi-part dealio, so here we go on to the second chunk of it…

anyway, I guess some people DO what they ARE, that is they make money in a way that is an expression of their identity might be one way to put it. But not everyone does. And, despite all the self-help do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life exhortations, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Of course I can’t find it now, but there was another good post about writers and artists who had regular day jobs.)

I wrestle with this piece of it since I’m a writer and artist but don’t pay my bills with either of those things. At one point I did consider pursuing creative work, but didn’t have the drive or confidence or something, deciding that the world had enough starving artists and I had a wide-ranging enough combination of interests and aptitudes that I could find something that was satisfying and compensated me well enough but was not so demanding that I didn’t have time for creative or other pursuits outside of work.

For other reasons my creative side got put on hold for a while, but now I am making time for it. Sometimes I do wish I had more time for it, but I think (tell myself as an excuse?) that if I were trying to support myself with my art it would change my relationship with making it. Sure, as it is I don’t get to do it all day every day, but, having the RDJ, when I do make art I can do whatever the hell I want to.

It’s an interesting thing though, as I get more involved with it, and submit work to shows and whatnot, there does seem to be the assumption that one is a Professional Artist, that that is what one does. That is, that one can be available during day time (regular work) hours to drop off or pick up work or otherwise interface with gallery staff.

And when I talk to people at an event, and they want to know what I Do, how do I answer that question?


Then there’s the flip side, or another side anyway, the things we just DO, with no thought that it will ever make us any money. In fact these things often cost money, but we do them because we enjoy them. For me, riding my bike is one of these things. Other people it might be motorcycles or playing the guitar or rock climbing.

This part is coming up since it’s something that you are passionate about doing so it’s probably a big part of your identity, who you think and say you are. So then what happens if you can’t do that thing? I mean I hope to be riding up til the end – and that the end is later rather than sooner – but who knows what will happen. How much would I stop being me if I wasn’t riding my bike?

Again as I’m writing this I’m realizing other dimensions, that sometimes circumstances put people in to a role, such as caregiver, that they are then defined as. It may be something they don’t necessarily enjoy or isn’t their first choice of how to spend their time, and yet they do it.

Such a simple question…

Well, as they say:
“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

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3 Responses to what do you do?

  1. judigoldberg says:

    Oddly it is the assumptions we make about the question/s that often are more limiting or defining than the question left. vague and ill-defined…what do you do is simply that…and the answer is as broad as nothing or pick my nose or play the banjo or work as a nurse or write or walk or eat drink and make passionate love or not….and When in fact it is being asked as a real get to know you/one question and it is the wrong one asked then as the answered it can be redirected to something more apt. My favorite question of this kind is the 1 2 bing bang who are you, what do you want asked by the heroine of every b movie think slinky blond on this side of a slightly opened door, or the woman at home alone on the ranch the man gone to town for supplies and no good thugs or rustlers looking for trouble are banging in the door….

  2. judigoldberg says:

    Oos I mean asked of the heroine….

  3. Brian says:

    I don’t like the question either for similar reasons. When I am asked that question I often answer what my profession is but follow up immediately with the statement, “My work doesn’t define me even though I enjoy what I do”. Once I was accused of being rude or uncaring when I didn’t return the question. When I stated I was more interested in knowing who she was rather than what she did there wasn’t much of a reply. I think people that define themselves through work find the question refreshing because it allows them to go off in a direction they feel comfortable talking about. The same as if somebody asked us, “Done any interesting rides lately?” (What a loaded question!) On the flip side, It helps weed out the workaholics really fast.

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