One Of My Least Favorite Questions

Hearing “What do you do?” pisses me off. I decided to dig into that and it led me to some strange places, and I suspect the same is true for you.

First, what’s the point of the question? Is it to genuinely get to know someone more deeply? If so, there are plenty of better questions. A friend said to me, “It’s a lame attempt at getting to know someone when you don’t know what to do, like when Americans ask how you are, but they don’t actually want to know.”

Is it a feigned attempt at saying, “I give a crap?” If you actually gave a crap, there are plenty of other questions.

Then there’s the question of how to answer the question, “What do you do?” While meditating on this, I noticed how often people respond with some permutation of I am… which I find interesting. As if we are a role, a job, an occupation, a profession.

That type of response doesn’t resonate with me either. Obviously, we are simultaneously many things and no thing at once. We are both individual drops and the ocean.

But, carrying that awareness doesn’t provide a good response to the question.

Part of me thinks of replying to BS with BS of my own, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Another part of me thinks of answering in a way that provokes a certain type of reply. Namely, in games of status and power, I try to give the shortest, densest answer that conveys heft and meaning.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to start a company. People don’t know and often don’t care whether your company makes $500K per year or $50M. They hear founder and their brain thinks, “Aha! This is a man of status. Let me see if I can impress him or present myself in such a way that we may perform some sort of trade, or I can extract value from him.”

Other slightly less shallow approaches advocate for listening first and offering to be of service. And of course, it’s much easier to be of service by first listening. Any decent salesperson will ask plenty of good questions. This enables them to sell you better — with the ultimate goal of getting a transaction out of the interaction.

But, this too feels gross. And I think what bugs me most about the question is that it fundamentally feels like a transactional question. I find transactions boring. Rudimentary.

I also have some painful memories around this, which likely caused me to fixate on the question. The memories usually follow some pattern of being “the fool.” The fool who takes what someone is saying at face value and is not in on the joke or on the game of, “Let’s both bullshit each other and stay on the surface and then keep moving and pretend that what just happened wasn’t completely useless and asinine.”

I have a hard time suffering fools, which may be why I have such a hard time with this idiotic social norm of a question. It feels like both a waste of time and a short cut to something deeply personal and makes me think, “Hey, at least buy me dinner first!” It gets weirder considering that if you actually answer the question in a deep way, it may be you who is the idiot! You, who weren’t smart enough to realize that they don’t actually care. They “were just being nice.”

Just being nice.

Wrong! More like just being a dickhead. Deliberately deceiving someone is the opposite of niceness. Anytime we say one thing and do another, we are out of integrity. The same goes for speaking, when we say one thing and mean another. Saying what we mean and meaning what we say leads us to integrity.

So much human potential is wasted because people don’t say what they actually mean. But, when hearing, “What do you do?” a part of me honestly wonders, “What do they mean?

I find myself pondering, “Ohhh, you’re one of those people at cocktail parties who uses my answer to this question to determine whether or not we should keep talking — whether or not I’m willing to invest in your company, introduce you to someone who can help you, get you customers, or assist you in whatever quest you are on.”

In simple terms, this is perhaps the best question a person could possibly ask if they wish to gain status and power. And, how a person answers the question also can be a means of gaining status and power in the eye of the person who asked it.

Has life been reduced purely to finite games of power, transactions, and status?

Transactionally asking “What do you do?” gets into wanting more, which can mean that we aren’t appreciating what is. The question isn’t inherently framed nefariously but it often gets used nefariously. If you aren’t actually curious, don’t ask the question!

Or, cage it at the end with:

  • for work
  • for pleasure
  • to support yourself

Better yet, a simpler way to relate to someone is to comment on something they already said, did, or presented. For example, today I struck up a conversation with a man at a coffee shop thanks to the CGM (Continuous Glucose Monitor) on his arm. I still have no idea “what he does,” but I know he cares about fitness a lot, uses a Whoop fitness tracker in addition to the CGM, and recently did an autoimmune elimination diet. From the few minutes of conversation we had, I found a company that makes a device I’ve been wanting to try — I’ve been on the waitlist for Levels, another CGM company, for months — all from simply commenting on something I saw!

Repeating the pattern and asking the question amplifies it. For some people, what they do as an occupation gives them great meaning. For many people, it doesn’t. If you’re the type of person that derives their sense of meaning from their employment status, assuming others do too may not be accurate.

Depending on context, it is accurate and the question is a no-brainer, like if you’re at a founder meetup. There’s this implicit understanding that everyone there is a “hustler” or “go-getter” focused on getting their nut, so they can then do the things that they actually care about.

To be transformational, embrace the idea that the journey is the reward. Get to know someone without an agenda, and you will be surprised by what you find. It’s okay to meet people for the sake of getting to know them or to meet them with the intention of exploring a friendship. Kids do this as a default. I have friends from many different walks of life precisely because I’m open to being friends with many different kinds of people.

Speaking from the heart is another great alternative.

As is not taking things personally, which can be a doozy. Sometimes, being asked, «What do you do?» isn’t about you at all!



Σχετικά Άρθρα