“So, What Do You Do?”

Do you ever think about how much your personal identity is tied to your career? Probably not, unless you are a stay-at-home mom or dad, out of work or retired. But I can tell you, your personal identity = your career for many people.

The title to this post is a standard question we get asked when we meet someone for the first time or run into an acquaintance we have not seen for a while. It is an easy conversation starter. To be honest, it is often not a question the person is looking for real insight on. They just are being polite, or don’t have a better conversation opener at hand.

But to certain people, it is a tough question. Generally, if you are not doing a paid job, people don’t know how to react to your answer.

For someone who is out of work, it is an uncomfortable question. Your answer is some variation on “I am looking for work”. Then you wonder what the other person thinks of you. Sometimes it makes any follow-on conversation awkward.

I had a client who had a very successful career. At a point in their life, they decided they wanted to do volunteer work as their vocation. They are on a couple non-profit boards. They do major fund raising. They do some mentoring of at-risk youth. But when asked that”what do you do?” question, they did not know how to best answer it. “Volunteer” does not begin to define what it is they are doing. They felt like it was letting other people down.

A stay-at-home parent, even though people understand it as a noble endeavor, throws the questioner off. How do you react? How do you follow up that answer?

As I have spent more time career coaching, I have discovered how deeply embedded our jobs are in defining our self. Being a salesperson, an engineer, a lawyer or a plumber paints a picture for most people. When you tell people “your job”, it is easy for them to fill in (rightly or wrongly) “what you are”. You feel good about answering the question (even if you hate your job). If they truly want to talk about what you do for a living, they have a convenient frame to work from. At least no one is embarrassed.

I find it very interesting that a “conventional” answer to that “what do you do” question, however nebulous the answer, is acceptable. I guess it shows the lack of depth of the original question.

For a person not having a paying job, or not having a conventional job, this “so, what do you do” question really makes things uncomfortable. How do you best say “I am looking for a job”? You are trying to read the other person’s intent, so your answer might vary. You might just be out for dinner or a drink, and have no interest in a conversation about your “situation” (because it is what you are already thinking about all of the time anyhow). The conversation becomes awkward, often because the other person was using that question simply to be friendly, not to seek insight. Now what do you talk about?

I think this points to two things. First, we really should take a moment to think about how we engage others. Using a standard opener question may not lead to insight. Is there a better way to initially engage with someone? We are so quick to say something that we don’t put much thought into it.

Second, isn’t it interesting how we make assumptions about an answer, if it fits something close to what we expect to hear? An “office worker” or “salesperson” can mean a broad range of things. But getting that answer allows us to frame the answer into our own perception – right or wrong.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to ask, “So, what do you do?”, think about if you really want to have a conversations around that. And how it might help or stymie your conversation.



As Warren Buffett says: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

How many of us follow that advice? In our interactions with people, do we “think about that” and “do things differently”? We run into situations every day that test us. Our numerous interactions push and pull us in many directions. Sometimes our ego, or desire to be clever, funny or irreverent creates a desire for action before thinking.

Let me give a couple examples.

I am as impatient as anyone else. I hate getting in a line at the grocery store, the restaurant or at the stop light behind someone moving slowly. My immediate impression is to want to sigh, roll my eyes or figure out a way to move elsewhere (while still showing my disgust at them for slowing me down). When someone is talking, going on forever (it seems to me), I have the urge to say to them “Get to the point!”. I am sure my body language says that for me. I don’t like meetings where the purpose of the meeting is not clear and stated up front. What do I want to be my reputation then to be?

Think about all of the times you have wanted to respond to an e-mail in some sarcastic way. How about re-tweeting a tweet that is off color, unpopular or just slants for/against a particular person or cause? Who doesn’t repeat a story you heard (is it a true story or a rumor)? How does that fit the reputation you really want?

Ponder when we find ourselves talking to someone else after a particularly frustrating experience. We want to complain about, comment on, or be mean spirited about another person, perhaps because they “deserved it”. Maybe we want to try to be funny. Perhaps in putting down the other, we feel like we are doing the right thing or fitting in. It’s likely we just want to feel “in” and make them feel “out”.

Every one of these examples are about building ourselves up. Every one of these little moments can tarnish our reputation. If said to the wrong person, or about the wrong person, it can ruin our reputation.

How do I define my “good name”?

There are a number of simple arguments for wanting to make that comment, re-tweet or forward that e-mail. We think them all of the time. We might ask. “Am I being untrue to myself if I hold back”? “I have got to be me”. “People are too sensitive” “I am tired of being told to be politically correct”. ”

That is the point where you get to decide what your reputation is. Perhaps you wish your reputation to be the person who “always speaks their mind”. Maybe it is the very cautious, diplomatic or politically correct person. You could be the person who “everyone knows he/she is that way”, the open book. That may be you. But is that reputation serving you well? Always? Do you have to have only one reputation, usable in all situations?

I have learned to be a “thinker” in more situations as Warren Buffet notes above. I believe that has served me well. Because that “five minutes” could really save my reputation – and save what I truly want to be remembered as.


Assumptions and Communicating

I had a great reminder the other day about coaching, honesty and openness. It made me realize I have a long way to go. But, I like a challenge, so I will keep trying.

I have a goal to live being open and honest more of the time. My coaching practice is based on not making assumptions about the other person or the situation. Being open to whatever comes my way in a discussion creates the chance for a wealth of possibilities. If I don’t have a preconceived notion about someone, we could talk about a lot of different things. That is what makes a discussion fun!

So here is what served as a reminder for me. I was having a conversation with someone that was going to require me to devote some hours to them. I made the assumption, before we had a conversation, that person would need “20 hours” minimum before they would consider me serious. I have no idea where that number came from, other than me. I did not want to “disappoint” them with too few hours. Nor did I want to commit too many hours. So, I came up with a number. In other words, I made an assumption about what they wanted, and decided I needed to meet their “need” (or more correctly, my assumption of their need).

It turns out they needed half that amount of time.

And that amount of time actually works out best for me.

That is an amount of time I could work without having to change my schedule in any meaningful way. I could fit that in. Twenty hours was going to require some (uncomfortable) adjustments to my schedule. Half that, optimal.

So, here I was, creating an expectation and then trying to fulfill that created expectation. Even though it was not optimal for me. And it was not based on any facts. I was giving the person an answer I thought they wanted, not what I wanted.


This episode was a excellent wake up for me. It’s a great reminder to be very careful in making assumptions. To what end was my assumption going to fulfill? I would have been committed to more time than I wanted. Or, the other person might have rejected me, or felt they were letting me down. Here I am, a coach who is attuned to not making assumptions, yet I made one. Might others be doing the same to me? It is a reminder to really listen to the answers I get as a coach from a client. Sometimes the client might be telling me what they think I want to hear, not what they really think.

How often do you find yourself in this situation? Not wanting to “let someone down” or “sound dumb” or “seem ungrateful”? You assume the other person is looking for some skill or some intelligent insight, so you conjure up a way to say it. You give them the answer YOU think they want to hear. Do you believe that comes across as sincere? Does it really tell your story? Is it said with conviction? Or doubt? It somehow feels easier to make an assumption and go with your instinct, instead of asking a question (“I will look uncertain of myself”). But is assuming REALLY better than clarifying?

I also turn this onto the people on the other side of the table in a hiring situation. You are an empathetic person who might not want to disappoint someone else (“I appreciate your time, we will get back to you in the future”) even though you know it is not going to work out. In this case, is your assumption (“not disappoint someone”) really helpful?

“Assuming” is a word that has many definitions. It is great when you are “taking control”. But it is not nearly as good when you are “pretending” or “supposing”. You get the choice. Think about how “assuming” is helping you.


A speaker I heard the other day was talking about how a mentor/coach was trying to explain how they would work together. The coach said that two of them would be “moving at the speed of your determination”. That phrase stuck with me.

I started thinking about determination: “the act of deciding definitely and firmly” or “firm or fixed intention to achieve a desired end”. Synonyms include the words “boldness”, “conviction” and “tenacity”. Determination is an overt act or intention to get to an end.

Determination seems to me to be one of our characteristics that we have a lot of reserves. Generally, determination doesn’t get worn out or worn down. We might decide to stop, but it seems to be a more consciously-made decision, not an unconscious “running out” of it. It is a much-less finite resource. That is what makes determination different from many other personal characteristics. When we think of similar attributes of ours such as willpower, intelligence or patience, I think most of us consider them to be finite. We only have so much willpower in a day – that’s why that bowl of ice cream at the end of the evening always seems to get to us. We say “I have run out of patience with that organization”. We can only learn so much before our brains get tired. Or we generally can only get so good at some subjects because of our aptitude.

Determination feels like it may last longer than many other personal attributes

Second, I also like that the quote focuses on the individual – YOUR determination. Moving forward is dependent on you, not external forces. You don’t have to rely on, or wait for, outside sources. Momentum, moving forward, is dependent on YOU. You are in control. You decide how fast things move. You decide when to push – or when it is time to pause and take a breath. That sense of control resonates with me.

When YOU are in control, you have more power

Third, I like that you control the speed. The vision I get is like riding your bike through some rolling hills. You get to modulate your speed based on the inclines facing you. You might need to push harder at some points to get over that rise in the way. When you feel like things are going downhill, you decide how fast you want to go. If the speed is “just right”, you might decide to go with the momentum. Perhaps coasting along, letting the speed and power you built up previously drive you forward for a while makes sense. Speed does not have to mean “breakneck speed”. It means propelling yourself forward at what feels comfortable in the moment.

Speed is something you get to regulate

We are all guilty of saying “I can’t” to things in our lives. Some of those events are probably not important. But some events just need a little impetus, a little encouragement. Perhaps the reminder that you can move forward “at the speed of your determination” will help drive you forward on something you need to do. “Can’t” doesn’t always have to mean “never”.