43 comments on “What Do You Do?

  1. Great question! And I really like what you do. 🙂

    I have a hard time answering this question in one sentence because I do so many different things. So I usually just keep talking until they glaze over or get a twinkle in their eye like they identify with what I say and then I follow that path. Luckily, most times these days I don’t get the glazed look too often. Now in my early days as an engineer, that was another story! Keep on these great topics. I love your perspective.

  2. I love this post! in my mind I am a hiker, skier, runner and dedicated to my family. Everything else I do, like work, is done just to make those things possible. I try to avoid work conversations on the trail at all costs…why spoil a good view with talk of cubicles?

  3. Yeah, you’re right Grant. It’s okay to talk of backpacking while in cubicles, but not the other way around 🙂

    On the other hand, I don’t want to give the impression that you shouldn’t enjoy your work. I still strive for that, it’s just quite often you have to settle for “good enough” in the realm of employment.

  4. My job is cool and all, but it just seems to dampen the mood when I am out in the back country if someone wants to talk about it. I try talking about backpacking at work and people think it is crazy to sleep outside, their loss! By the way, that stream crossing in your pic looks pretty gnarly!

  5. Haha. Yeah, Grant, pretty much all of the photos of the Sierras on the PCT look epic. That was actually one of the less exciting stream crossings, but don’t let it fool you– once you get used to walking in knee-deep ice water, it’s really not that difficult 🙂

    Come to think of it, I really have very few photos of me on the PCT. That one I swiped from my buddy Moleman, who took some really amazing photos in general.

  6. If you can answer this question by saying “I hike” then you are truly blessed. It doesn’t matter what else you ‘do’ to support doing those things that you really love. The world is a better place when we let those most important things define who we are.


  7. I read the article, then realized that my last ultralight backpacking trip was through Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming in Aug 2010. Then I wonder what I’m doing in this job where I sit in an office for most of the day & talk to my clients about their retirement or their savings or their estate planning…then I realize that these are all important to most of my clients…but not that exciting for me anymore. I think I’m going to quit my job.

    Thanks for a great article, Ryan.

  8. Lol, people ask “what do you do” simply because that’s what most people spend the majority of their waking hours doing.

    Income is only a small part of it. Being a teacher vs a nurse vs a software engineer (myself) says a LOT about the way that person thinks.

  9. Guess we need to have a polished elevator pitch.
    On the other hand this is a first world problem. We get asked “what do you do” because we don’t have to worry about surviving. We’re not in immediate danger of starving or having a third world disease. It’s lovely to say something ethereal as a answer. How about we’re the luckiest people in the world. We’re able to be out on the trail and enjoy our selfish hobbies and passions. If it weren’t for money the whole thing would be doomed.
    Dana Law
    San Diego

  10. I came here from the Gossamer Gear newsletter. Great topic. I read another one like this many years ago. He said he would respond with this:

    “I don’t like that question. How about, What are your hopes and dreams?”

    But that sounds too long, complicated and girly. It does seem that answering the question with a question is the best way to go. It has to open up a the larger picture which I think we agree is more important. We could go in that direction:

    “I’m interested in philosophy. Do you have philosophical viewpoint?”

    But most people don’t know what philosophy really is and confuse it with ideology. Many think that thinking deeply is girly. So how about adding disdain for the shallowness of their original question with these:

    “That’s a sick question, dude! So what’s your dream?”

    Ha Ha, did you just ask me where do you get your money? So what’s your dream?”

    or more politely,

    “So what’s your dream?”

    or the double entendre,

    “What are you dreaming?”

    or to answer them directly:

    “Where I get my money is at http://www.motionista.com. Be sure to check out my blog so you can jack my hits and Oh… click on all the ads too. Where’s your virtual world? But I won’t be clicking on your ads though because I use AdBlock.”

    I haven’t been doing any of the above because the “What do you do?” question always blindsides me, I suppose like many, I like to talk about myself too much and-or I don’t want to offend a stranger. But really, thank you for reminding me of this. I’m not sure which one I’ll use but I’m leaning towards “What are you dreaming?”.

  11. Perhaps that question is not asking what you do as a “profession” but more to ask: are you a responsible citizen supporting you and your’s? Or, are you a sponge with out medical insurance, living off others donations (government aid) to you? Or, what do you do to improve the life of others and not just being selfish?

    Perhaps the person asking really is interested in you and what the rest of your life is like and wants to get to know “you” not just your “trail life”.

    ’til later,
    Jon (Gandalf)

  12. Responsibility:
    A compound word that means having the ability to choose your own response. It refers to making a reasoned response rather than a emotional one. The culture of marketing and government taxation has distorted the word to mean more or less: Work hard to produce goods or services. Start a family by having kids. Buy expensive items and take good care of them. The distortion of the word “Responsibility” completely ignores the fact that the world is overpopulated and the earth has limited resources.

    Consumers, Consumption:
    Another word perverted by marketeers. In the past, tuberculosis has been called consumption, because it seemed to consume people from within, with a bloody cough, fever, pallor, and long relentless wasting.

  13. Great responses, everyone. Keep them coming. I’ll try to write more than this quick comment when I’m back home from the holidays. Cheers!

  14. I have a set of very nice, super high quality business cards which I hand out in response to that question. They say:

    Senior Dumpster Dancer
    (Our company name)

    Almost everyone in our organization stomps the trash down at some point, so it’s a totally true (partial) description of what I do, and it avoids all the nasty assumptions that people make about any of our life choices.

    Similar descriptions with respect to my long distance, ultra-light hiking, might be:

    “Trail Sanitation Pit Engineer” or
    “Duff Density Surveyor” or
    “Stone Grinder” or
    “Sunrise Calibration Inspector” or
    “Forest Vegetative Health Inspector” or
    “Stream Crossing Supervisor.”

  15. Ooh, there’s a lot to sort through here. I really like the various responses. They made me think a little more about my reason for not liking how our society identifies people based on mode of income. Speaking for myself, I’m more interested in a question like “who are you” than “what do you do” in any form. But walking up to someone and saying “who are you” is seen as rude, so I tend to ask more specific questions– where are you from, where have you traveled recently, what do you love to do, and so on. I think what a person loves (their home, their travels, their friends and family) is a better indicator of their personality than how they feed into the money-go-round, although sometimes that part of their life is part of what they love.

    I aspire to having my job be something that I love, but in the meantime, if someone wants to assume things about me based on my job (or oftentimes lack of a job), that’s their business. I think that assuming someone like a through-hiker is a leach on society is a great disservice to humanity. It’s a far more noble thing to pursue happiness than to belittle others’ joys in life.

    Michael– speaking of Consuming, you reminded me of the John Carpenter classic They Live. “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum… and I’m all outta bubble gum!”

  16. I never heard of that movie, Thanks! Here’s something I wrote long ago about the “pursuit of happiness”

    Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is flawed logic because “happiness” is the result of an unbalanced neural firing of our neural network. While “peace” is immune from this problem. Happiness if analyzed thoroughly and economically usually happens at the expense of others. For instance, the Ecological Footprint Calculator found online, says that if everyone lived like the average American we would need 5.4 planet earths.

    On the other hand, “peace” is not an emotive mammalian or impulsive reptilian brain response.

    Therefore, I propose that the Declaration of Independence be amended to read:
    Life, liberty and the pursuit of peace.

    I think we now have the cognitive science and fMRI imaging to support such a revision. What remains is a thorough testing to uphold these ideas. If adopted we might have a society that can evolve using the full reasoning power of our neocortex rather than the mammalian brain drunk on emotions or the hoarding and aggressive reptile brain.

  17. I see your point, especially where if everyone lived like the average American, the world would be crushed beneath our demands. But there are a lot of people around the world (many Americans included) who aren’t so wasteful, and are just as happy.

    Also, there are plenty of simple things in life that increase happiness with entirely no negative effects on others. If someone randomly says to you “you’re a really great person,” that increases your happiness and doesn’t harm anyone.

    Aaaaaanyway, to bring it back to the original topic, the responses everyone here has provided for their individual takes on “what do you do” are great. I’m glad I’m not the only one who tries to screw around with the question to make something more entertaining out of it.

  18. OK, I’ve been accused of being pretty naive for most of my life but I actually think that being asked ‘what I do’ is just an innocent way for many people to start a conversation with someone they don’t know very well but sincerely do want to talk and get to know them a bit. Why be offended (or sarcastic) when someone is just making an effort to be friendly? I do a lot of things that I enjoy and am proud of including my ‘job’.

  19. Get a grip–we are talking about a conversation beginning question generated by people with similar interests, not changing the balance of the universe and in answer to your sarcastic question I live in the real world as well.

  20. Jan, you are right that it’s a question that is used as an innocent conversation starter. I’m not saying people who ask it are bad people. It’s more that I’m trying to bring up the point that maybe our society could do better. Of course, these things don’t change simply by someone saying “let’s do it differently.” It happens organically. So I just like to talk.

    As for being sarcastic in response, it’s true that sometimes I am more sarcastic than I should be. When someone asks me what I do, half the time I will answer with my job, and the other half the time I’ll just talk about recent hikes or books I’ve read or baking pies. I like to think they get a better impression of me in the latter case.

  21. Heh. I’ve always thought anger was the ugly cousin and that sarcasm was the slightly less ugly one. After all, getting angry about things is less fun than making a joke about them.

  22. A bit of humor is useful in ‘getting off the hook’…. If asked I think I’ll answer, “Go where I wanna go, do what I wanna do, with whoever I want to do it to…” On second thought, maybe I’d better only use that if talking to a lady…..

  23. I think some of you folks need to get a passport and travel to other countries. There you will find that people don’t care what you do for money or how you make a living. This is a very North American (USA) view of the world. In the USA when you meet someone on the trail or at a party after they’ve identified your name the very next question is “What do you do (for a living)”. This is because people from the USA are obsessed with money (and time). We are the most time oriented society on this planet and we are also the most obsessed with money.

    This is simply not the case elsewhere. In Western Europe, for example, the people have similar values to those of us from the USA. However, you will discover on meeting Europeans that they never ask about what you do for a living. They are much more interested in you as a person and don’t really care about your monthly salary.

    Finally, if you travel to the third world you will find people who have no relationship to time (as in clock) or care anything about what you do for a living. In fact, in the third world, if you come across someone who speaks english the conversation will go something like this.

    “Hello, what is your name?”
    “Where are you from?”
    “Are you married?”
    “Would you like to meet my sister?”

    My whole point here is this blog is very Americo-centric and nearly 80% of Americans (USA) never even apply for a passport during their lifetimes. I guess part of the reason I think we are such poor “world citizens” is that we, as a people, know nothing about the rest of the world and thereby assume it’s just like it is here. But it’s NOT!!

    This “What do I do?” question is entirely a USA phenomenon and doesn’t exist elsewhere on the planet. For the record I don’t care for this tendency either but it is part of our capitalist culture. Maybe we should all stop focusing on money so much and perhaps this idea that you are defined by your work will lose favor.

  24. I agree with Jan. Asking a person what they do is a means to start a conversation. Perhaps a better way would be, “Tell me about yourself”, but of course there are those who have no interest in knowing others. Some of the more interesting people I’ve ever met were on thru-hikes of the PCT and CDT and usually my curiosity allowed the conversation to get going.

  25. I get asked that all the time, and usually say one of the following:

    1) “I’m a gentleman of liesure!”

    2) “I am semi-retired. I take up a project here and there if it looks fun, or when I need some extra cash.”

    3) On credit card applications I just write “Jerk.”

    4) “Lately, I’ve been losing money for a living. I am very good at it.”

    5) “I’m on sabbatical, taking a break for a while. Not sure what I will be doing next year.”

  26. On my thru hike this year, I learned that we all ask each other MANY meaningless questions…….questions who’s (?) answers then influence our opinion of the other person. This reflects biases imposed by society and only serve to separate. I’m trying to learn to avoid any of the following questions:

    -How old are you?
    -What do you do for a living?
    -How much education do you have?

    I’m trying to practice my standard new answer of, “I won’t answer that. Just decide if you like me as a PERSON and let’s go from there!”

  27. I was at a party recently where a person asked,what do you do for a living? I said now I do what ever I want!~ She persisted,what did you do before you did whatever you wanted? Besides avoiding this oddball, I told her I raised my family!

  28. Maybe the “What you do?” question is really each person trying to find the map. “The Map” as defined in this book I’m reading. Here’s some notes I’ve just started taking.

    Linchpin, Are You Indispensable?
    by Seth Godin ©2010

    alt keyword Lynchpin

    The goal is to hire as many cheap but talented people as possible, give them a rule book, and have them follow instructions to the letter.

    Go to McDonald’s. Order a Big Mac. Order a chocolate milkshake.
    Drink half the milkshake.
    Eat half the Big Mac.
    Put the Big Mac into your milkshake and walk up to the counter.
    Say, “I can’t drink this milkshake … there’s a Big Mac in it.”

    The person at the counter will give you a refund, Why? Because it’s easier to give her a rule than it is to hire people with good judgement.

    The sign in front of your local public school could say:
    Maplemere Public School
    We train the factory workers of tomorrow. Our graduates are very good at following instructions. And we teach the power of consumption as an aid for social approval.

    It’s almost impossible to imagine a school with a sign that said:
    “We teach people to take initiative and become remarkable artists, to question the status quo, and to interact with transparency. And our graduates understand that consumption is not the answer to social problems.”

    And yet that might be exactly what we need.


    Amazon Most Popular Low Review

    Bret L. Simmons says:

    Much of what Seth had to say in this book was not new to me, and frankly I prefer the way others have said it.

    Books Bret likes better:

    What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World

    Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership)

    The Go-Giver: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea

  29. Whenever I’ve been asked what I do, I’ve been happy to tell them. I’ve never looked at it as something negative. Maybe it’s because I enjoy my job.

  30. Seems this post is taking on a life of its own. I definitely did not expect this.

    Wheeew, the “how old are you” question also got to me sometimes, but only because usually the followup to the answer was kind of condescending. I think part of what gets to me about questions like that is that there is often a judgmental quality to them.

    As you can see from the responses to this post, some people ask questions completely out of interest, which is great. Some people seem to ask questions because they want to judge you. It’s usually obvious what a person’s intentions are. If you answer with one of the oddball responses that popped up here and they take that in stride, I think it’s a good sign. If they don’t like those answers, maybe they just need to ask more specific questions.

  31. I totally agree with you Ryan on the questions having “a judgmental quality to them” I don’t tell people I wash dishes for a living anymore because they stereotype and look down at me. If I tell them I run ultramarthons they think I’m superhuman. Pretty f’d up. My answer is always “Not much” I’ve run races in Europe and they react just the same way Americans do. And they do ask “what do you do?” in Europe as well. I know they’re trying to be friendly and start conversation but they want nothing to do with you after they find out you’re unemployed or wash dishes for a living.

  32. This is very interesting to me, because that is often the situation I find myself in– unemployed or working less desirable jobs to support other hobbies. And I don’t see anything wrong with working jobs that society sees as less interesting when you have a goal in mind, like running ultramarathons or through-hiking, or even just enjoying yourself apart from work.

    On a related note, the guy who hired me at my most recent job told a little anecdote about how his best experience in hiring seasonal employees was in Canada, where socialized health care made it possible for highly competent people to work half the year and still afford to live quite well, as opposed to the trend in the US where seasonal workers tend to be people who can’t find full-time work or are hiking- or ski-bums like me. As someone who’s been paying out of pocket for health insurance for the past few years, I can see a lot of appeal to that. (Yeah, I said it! And before people start flipping out and telling me to move to Canada, I’ve heard it all before. I love my home, and a little thing like money isn’t going to convince me to leave it.)

  33. The US health care system is killing jobs in the USA. I live and work in the US but I hire overseas because people in the US are desperate to afford inflated-fraudulent health care and real estate.

  34. Anon: The US healthcare system isn’t killing jobs It creates them. And, it creates them as a byproduct of demand for meds, procedures, cures, etc. that will rid them of the dreaded human condition(s) called aging and mortality. Acceptance of this reality would be quite a powerful agent of change. And, no, I am not advocating we allow people to needlessly suffer, not seek answers, etc., but employ knowlege and reason rather than demand the newest drug to lower their cholesterol instead of modifying their dietary and exercise habits

    “What do you do?” usually receives my standard line: “As little as possible.” Most people get the glazed over look when I tell them what I actually do for a living!

  35. Here’s a great example of health care jobs.

    My local hospital has an award display in the cafeteria on reducing bed sores. Imagine what kind of detached person would put a 10′ x15′ exhibit displaying bedsore statistical graphs in the cafeteria. Creative people who haven’t prostituted themselves would never dream of this juxtaposition.

    The hospital has huge award displays throughout the hospital. I learned recently Merck Pharmaceutical has 20k in their budget for making up a campaign for themselves to say they have won a award of distinction. They basically have an outside firm create an award category and they buy back into it.

    It’s money laundering.

    I work in advertising. I can tell from listening to you or reading what you write whether you’re being manipulated by primitive mammalian or reptilian impulses. When you are, you’re very likely to have your wallet emptied.

    That’s what we see in healthcare when statistics show double the costs since 1980 and and a higher mortality rate. If you want to see second hand the extent of the moral crimes that profit extraction can exact without getting sick and finding out first hand, just look at the amount of frivolous advertising.

    Public advertising, for sure, should be eliminated from health care. When’s the last time you heard someone say take to me that hospital with the great TV commercials and excellent billboards?

    The opposite argument, “No, that doesn’t happen in an ambulance (although sometimes it does in major markets like New York), but it actually happens all the time in non-emergency care.

    In order to compete, hospitals develop specialties, like cancer or pediatric care, and advertise directly to consumers. Then when someone develops cancer or their child gets sick the hospital already has a reputation in their mind.”

    My response? So what, hospitals specialize. This is the same in Europe and the emergency responders know where to take them without the wasted advertising expense. Public advertising is both overkill and a clear sign that executives would rather glamorize their work-day spending money in the media. I saw this happen when television news cut their coverage domestically and with bureaus overseas. Instead they did branding makeovers every season. It was a way for executives to build their own portfolio rather than cover the news. Cronkite talked about this loss of quality often and when he died we heard this reiterated.

    My first inkling came decades ago when my relative talked about how they went on a trip to Disneyland where the entire park was open only to their group as a reward for her husband’s sales in pharmaceuticals.

    Another example is my former co-workers wife, also in pharmaceutical sales. I lived and worked at their gated house in Scottsdale, AZ for three months. She works about 4 days a week and makes six figures. She books four star hotels on the San Diego waterfront to entertain doctors who might specify the drugs she represents.

    These are health care dollars being squandered rather than used to treat illness. Doctors and pharmaceutical sales people seem to think they are entitled or just accept this scenario without question.

    Most of these people think of themselves as honest and hard-working. I see them as just grasping at opportunity that sits downstream from fraud. So what can they do without losing their job in the healthcare industry? Perhaps they can blow the whistle anonymously by writing about similar examples and distributing those stories on the web. Healthcare Head of Corp Communications & Chief Spokesman at Cigna, Wendell Potter spoke out. Not everyone is in a position to blow the whistle or has the courage Wendell Potter has. Google: Wendell Potter Speaks Out Against Health Care Industry

  36. Ooh, I knew that was going to open a can of worms. I try to keep the political business out of this blog, but in this case I think it’s relevant to a hiking life.

    Michael, I did indeed see the Wendell Potter thing a few years ago, during the whole health care debate in congress. I’ll just say that entire year of debates frustrated me greatly. Seeing and hearing all that unproductive anger all over the country– it just blew my mind.

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