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Why I Hate the Question “So, what do you do?”
by, 10-10-2009 at 07:58 PM (8501 Views)
It never fails: You encounter new people and the first question they ask is, “So, what do you do?” Occasionally you’ll encounter people that seem to ask this question out of a genuine interest in you and your life, but most of the time you can tell that it’s their way of quickly sizing up your social status, paycheck, and your potential worth to them.
I hate this question for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a socially acceptable answer. What do I do? I “do” a lot of things. I write, design web sites, take pictures, cook, clean, run marathons, make jewelry, do landscaping, read, do needlework, care for my family, manage the finances, travel, and a whole host of other things. I even get paid for a fair number of them. The trouble is, these are not “jobs,” so they are not suitable answers for the “What do you do?” question. Because I don’t have a “real” job and a career focus, there is nothing I can say that allows people to pigeonhole me in the way that they would like to.
If I say I’m a writer, they assume that means books and want to know what books I’ve published. Writing articles and corporate materials on a freelance basis isn’t “writing” to them. If I say I design websites, they assume I’m talking about designs for big corporations. The designs that I do for small businesses, artists, and as contest entries don’t “count.” If I say I don’t have a “job,” but that I simply work on whatever moves me at the moment, then I’m a bum. If I say I do “nothing and everything” I get a look like I should be locked up somewhere.
This is fun, in a twisted way. I like to watch people try to parse my life into something they can judge. I enjoy defying their expectations of what a woman of my age “should” be. I should have a big career, or at least several kids to justify my opting out of the workforce. That I don’t have or, more importantly, want these things baffles most people. How can someone who is educated and of a certain class simply choose to do (what they see as) nothing?
The answer lies in some very careful thought and planning on my part. I realized early on that I was not cut out for the cube farm. I tried to do the 9-to-5 thing and failed miserably. I hated the stress, the office politics, the games, the backstabbing, and that I had to keep busy for eight hours in a job that took three to do. I hated the clothes, the makeup, and the commute. I hated that I couldn’t be creative and instead had to follow the tried-and-true line. Corporate life was, to me, mind-numbing and soul-destroying. In short, I hated everything that had to do with working.
You would think that this attitude would have left me homeless and broke before I was twenty-five, but I made a plan. I knew I hated work, but I needed money. What to do? I sucked it up and worked for six years, saving every single penny I made that wasn’t required for living expenses. I lived very low to the ground for those six years and incurred no debt. At the end of six years I had a tidy nest egg and I was able to literally buy my freedom. I bought a small house in a low cost of living area, budgeted carefully to determine what I would need to make to cover my expenses, and set about finding work to cover those needs.
In the beginning it was tough, but I had the savings to cover me until I found my groove. I took on any project that paid money, finding out through trial and error what I enjoyed most and what would pay me enough to make it worthwhile. Now I make my living doing a hodgepodge of things, usually working on whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. I don’t have a “job,” I have “income streams” that I can tap when I want to. If I want to take pictures, I have places that pay me to do that. If I want to write or work on a website, I know people who will pay me for that, too. If I need extra money or want a break from the other things, I know people who will pay me to cook or clean. There are many things I can do and I’ve figured out how to turn each one into at least a small income. I make enough money to cover my living expenses, afford a few luxuries, and save for the future. I set my own hours and work, for the most part, where I want. I’m never bored and I have all the time I need to spend with family and deal with the things in life that have to get done. I get to do things that are important to me now, rather than waiting for “someday.”
If it sounds like an idyllic life, it is. Right up until someone asks the question, “What do you do?” Then I stumble as I try to find an answer that won’t make the questioner feel that I am useless to society. When they find out that I don’t do anything that they can put their finger on, most of them move across the room to talk with someone who clearly has more going for them. This used to bother me much more than it does now, but I’ve mostly gotten over it. I figure that if they are so narrow minded as to cast me off based on one question then they are not someone I would want to know, anyway.
Why we feel compelled to pigeonhole people based on their occupation could be the subject of a book. What makes us seek such a narrow definition of people? In most cases, a person’s occupation isn’t even the thing that makes them unique or forms the basis of who they are. Most people are far more than “accountants,” or “construction workers,” or “computer programmers,” or whatever title they hold. Most people are mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. They are caregivers, friends, sports enthusiasts, hobbyists, runners, walkers, volunteers, churchgoers, and many other things, all at once.
The trouble is, these things (generally) don’t produce income. Thus they cannot be used to determine a person’s social class, potential worth as a networking tool, or the likelihood that they own the same things we do. It’s pretty sad that the thing we use most often to identify someone (and as a consequence, choose whether to associate with that person or not) is their occupation slash earning potential. There is so much more to people than where they work and what they earn.
Over the years I’ve come to consider it a privilege not to have an easy answer to this question. I’ve met many people who would like to live as I do but who aren’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. That I’ve made it work is a badge of honor to me. If you, too, want to buy your freedom so that you have no socially acceptable answer to the “What do you do?” question, I can give you some tips on how to get there, even if I can’t tell you how to answer the question. The main thing is to learn how to make work (and income) a means to other ends, not the end in and of itself.
-Author: J. Derrick