How to Answer the Question "What Do You Do?" While Chasing Your Dream Leila Howland

Not so long ago, it physically hurt to answer the question “What do you do?” I’d been pursuing my dreams, first of being an actress, then of being a writer, for a decade. I’d grown up hearing that if I could dream it, I could be it. However, when I hit my late twenties, it was no longer considered cute to be following my bliss during business hours, not when I wasn’t getting paid for it. My professional struggle made people close to me uncomfortable. Including me. Especially me.

Here was the problem. Saying I was a writer before I’d been published or produced begged the follow-up question, “Have I seen your work anywhere?” I’d feel a stabbing pain in my side and reply, “Not unless you’ve been poking around my MacBook.” And yet telling people I was a waitress or temp didn’t feel accurate either. It was such a small part of my life, usually one I loathed. So when people asked, “What do you do?” I’d look at my shoes and stammer, “I’m a temp/waitress/nanny but imtryingtobeawriter.” Then I’d hold my breath and try not to cry. Needless to say, I’ve thought a lot about how to answer the dreaded question when the work you’re paid for isn’t your life’s work. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1.  Forget about your practical job and just talk about your real work.

This takes chutzpah because of the above mentioned follow-up question, but there are many benefits to announcing your vocation loud and proud. First, your conversation partner might be in a similar situation and be happy to discuss her new jewelry design business with a fellow artist. Or he/she might have valuable insight, the perfect book you should read, or maybe even a great connection. He/she might gather courage from you, confessing that he/she has always wanted to make a short film but never had the guts to do it.

2.  Remember that all jobs deserve respect and present your bread-and-butter gig with poise.

Perhaps you feel bad about being a babysitter while your friends are going to law school. Perhaps you’ve internalized the unfortunate way people treat you as a waitress. Maybe personal assisting has got you down. I once worked for a lady who assigned tasks so meaningless to me (rearranging her spice rack, filing random articles from Sunset Magazine, measuring tablecloths for accuracy) that I felt like I was jogging around the outer circle of hell. In these circumstances, it’s important to remember that you’re providing a service and earning money for it. There’s dignity in that. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool and a charlatan. So, tell them your gig without hesitation. Look them in the eye and say, “I’m a server over at that new French place. Have you ever tried their quiche? It’s perfection.” Or, “I’m taking care of three boys and I’ve come to really appreciate Thomas the Tank Engine.” Or, “I’m a personal assistant. Last week I rode in a private jet!”

3.  Be vague, then divert.

It seems that when people ask, “What do you do?” they are asking a number of things. Like, How do you spend your time? What kind of education do you have? What’s your financial situation? “What do you do?” isn’t a rude question, but that’s because it’s so very vague. So answer vaguely then change the subject. Try, “I’m pursuing a few things. Now, tell me where you got this amazing haircut.” Or, “Good question. I might have to get back to you. Have you seen Homeland yet? I’m obsessed.”

4.  Tell them you are having a professional crisis and are desperate to make a change.

Okay, that’s not a realistic response. It’s too much for a near stranger to bear. But you can say it to yourself and start an internal conversation. For a while, I was in an endless cycle of crappy jobs. And then one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I would’ve rather eaten my weight in wet dog food than served another omelet or be passive aggressively corrected on my towel folding technique. I decided to go back to school, then I found a job teaching English to adults. It took a while, it was a lot of work, and I had to put my dreams on hold for a bit, but eventually this allowed me to support myself and do my art at the same time. When people asked me what I did, I had an answer that felt good. I was a teacher. And if I really liked them I also said I was writing a book.

If you find yourself driven to the brink by the question “What do you do?” maybe it’s time to switch things up. Find a new path. You don’t have to make a fortune at your art in order for it to be of infinite value. When you have a craft or a practice that gives your life meaning and feeds your soul, you’re already rich. Finding a way to do it long-term, in tandem with a job you like that also pays the bills, is just as worthy a goal as seeing your name in lights. Besides, if you can mitigate the pain and just do the work, you may find the dream you’ve been chasing is closer than you thought. And even if you don’t get to fly in a private jet, the satisfaction of realizing your vision, of doing what you were put on this earth to do, is guaranteed to send you soaring.

Image via Shutterstock

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  1. This is a great article. I am currently pursuing being a large animal veterinarian but my dreams are taking a lot longer to attain than I thought they would be. It’s nice to hear I’m not alone!

  2. good read, helped me answer some questions going around in my head!

  3. what a wonderful article! I’ve been fortunate enough to know negative wanted to do my whole life, but after pursuing my dream and completing a degree in music education, there is not much of a job market out there. It’ s nice to know I’ m not alone, and good luck with your book!

  4. The question is worse when its followed up with “but didn’t you graduate college? why are you still waitressing?” I find myself considering a hermits life to avoid having to explain how costly and timely it is to become a registered dietitian.

  5. oh i love this. for awhile i was really frusterated being a shift lead at a coffee shop, but after i stuck it out and am finally having my hard work recongized and getting the schedule/hours i want and need along with time off to acting whenever i land a role is very thrilling. I do not want to do this profession forever, but for the time being it allows me to live almost comfortably and still work on conquering my dreams and be proud to say I am a barista as I build my resume as an actress. all my regulars at my store are so thankful for the service i provide them. so for now it works :) thanks for writing this! all us artists out there sometimes need a reminder we are not alone in our hard work!! xoxo <3

    • I bet it’s so nice for those regulars to have someone like you as a part of their day. Break a leg at your next audition:)

  6. thank you for your article. its nice to know im not the only one dreading the “what do you do?” question at social gatherings when the tue answer is “figuring out my life!”

  7. Needed this! Thank you!

  8. I relate to this article so much. I was an actress, and after years of not getting anywhere, I dabbled in writing. All the while doing temp jobs, retail, and front desk jobs. I recently left a front desk job to go to…another front desk job. The bright side is that I still love to write, and I’m also a Masters of Social Work student and a Hospice volunteer. I agree wholeheartedly that talking about your work should include your passion in life. When I talk to people about my love for hospice care and bereavement services they get to see the real me. Being patient, trusting that hard work will pay off, and knowing that experience is the best teacher can make the time more bearable.

  9. Great article! I do #3 a lot, and I’m currently doing #4 (back in school to hopefully get a job that allows me to also pursue my art). Thanks for the encouraging words :)

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  11. Oh, I identify with this one SO MUCH. After years of jobs I took to pay the bills, I finally quit my day job to focus on figuring out how to get to the place I hope to be (published author and/or entrepreneur) and while I am blessed to have a husband whose job provides for us while I’m “finding myself,” the looks I get from people are priceless when I fumble to tell them what I do. For the first time in sixteen years, I didn’t have a clear answer. I could say housewife, I suppose. But that really isn’t true. I spend more hours writing or researching for my book than I do washing dishes.

    For the past year I’ve done something toward a writing or business goal (selling on Etsy for awhile, working on a novel, etc.) pretty much every day. I just don’t get paid (much) for it yet.

    I’ve learned to respond to The Dreaded Question by saying something like “I work from home. I’m a writer. I don’t get paid for it yet, but I’m hoping to be soon. I’m finishing up a novel right now and will be sending it out to agents.” I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how people have responded to that.

    Love this article, Leila! And congrats on the book that I see will be coming out soon. You are an inspiration.

  12. Thank you for keeping with your dreams and writing this! It has truly helped me and now since you have taken the words I’ve been trying to say into this lovely article I can finally explain what I do :)

  13. Love this article! Thanks for this… This is a difficult question sometimes, especially when “what you do” doesn’t really define you. But it’s difficult to say what you’re pursuing, because it’s still in the works. Great points here, love it!

  14. It can be tough. I am having a bit of a crisis myself and it can get me down – it’s easy to get caught up in what’s going on (or not- in my case) but trying to keep my head held high. Look forward to checking out your book! Claire x

  15. Thank You For This, Needed some Sort of Inspiration & Support.. This Article was Just what I needed! :)