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.