Tell me honestly: is there any question worse than “What do you do?” I mean, I can think of a couple. Like, “Why is there an atrocious green thing oozing out of your ear?” or “Do you smell that toxic death smoke, too?” but that’s probably about it.
I get it. “What do you do?” is an easy question, and it makes sense. When you meet someone for the first time it’s totally natural to try and find common ground by inquiring into a generally neutral aspect of a person’s identity—their work. And, as a bonus, it leaves the intent open to the questionee’s interpretation and allows the questioner to avoid any awkwardness if that person is unemployed. It’s totally possible that you could just be asking them what they do for fun or what, as a human, they like, do, man. But we all know that you’re not.
Asking someone what they do is asking them to provide you with an informal elevator speech that perfectly encapsulates their entire professional persona in one fell swoop. And it’s asking them to let you judge them mercilessly for it. What’s more, in today’s society your professional persona is not defined only by your job. It’s not enough to just have a full-time career, to be truly impressive you must also have a long list of professional accomplishments, a myriad of dazzling extracurriculars—from passion projects to volunteering—and a happy home life to boot. What you do isn’t just “What you do between the hours of nine to five” it’s “What the hell are you doing with your life?”
In an excellent New York Times article from last year, “Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary,” writer Alina Tugend explores the idea that our current culture places too much focus on superficial accomplishments and public accolade. She argues that the pressure to always be extraordinary in everything we do is distracting us from more worthy pursuits, like trying to be a genuinely good person or learning to appreciate what we already have.
In many ways this attitude, particularly for Millennials, was born out of necessity. Gone are the days of a guaranteed life-long job and comfortable pensions straight out of college or high school. We all know that competition for jobs is fierce and that much more of it comes down to who you know than what degree you have, so getting involved in many different things and making new connections makes a lot of sense.
But, in most cases, the reality is that that’s still not enough to set you apart. To their credit, many organizations are looking for employees with more well-rounded experience and skills beyond what is required in the job description. While this opens the door for more creative thinking and progressive workplaces, it also puts an immense amount of pressure on the average professional. We are constantly striving for more lines on our resumes, notches in our belt, and a stockpile of impressive answers to the inevitable, dreaded question.
Climbing the ladder and working hard for tangible achievements is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. But at what point does it go too far? Though it’s very hip these days to talk about redefining success, and “failure” has become the hottest new buzzword, do any of us really buy it? Failure without eventual success is a lot less sexy, and those who choose to find fulfillment in simpler things—like playing video games with their spouse or taking their dog to the park—are still often regarded as lacking ambition. As Tugend quotes from Brene Brown’s book, The Gift of Imperfection, “In this world, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life.” When what you do becomes synonymous with who you are, something has gotten out of whack.
So what’s the answer? Well, I don’t have one. What I do have is a new question, many new questions, in fact. “What’s your story?” What are you interested in?” “How do you feel about Caleb versus Mr. Fitz?”* Any number of these can tell you just as much about a person as their title at work or how many Twitter followers they have.
It’s not easy as a culture to move towards a place where people are truly allowed to embrace their own definitions of success, but tossing the tired old standby of “What do you do?” is a good place to start.
*Pretty Little Liars reference, watch it! P.S. The answer is Caleb.