One afternoon on the Appalachian Trail in 2007 I overheard an unusual conversation. I had been on the trail for almost a month, but it was the first time I’d heard the dreaded question, “What do you do?” The person asking the question couldn’t get an answer that satisfied her. “I hike,” her interviewee responded, stubbornly, over and over whenever the question was asked.
What is your answer to that question? What do you do?
|This is what I do.|
My experience in 2007 was that people on the trail tended to avoid this question. Even five years later, I avoid it, because I don’t identify myself in the way that the question assumes I do.
So let’s get right down to it. “What do you do” or “what are you” refer to your income. They assume that you identify yourself by how you make money. For some people, that’s okay. If your work makes you happy and proud, then that’s worth celebrating by saying that your work is your identity. If your work is just something to pay the bills until you find a job that you love, or if you’re unemployed, what then? Are you nothing more than your job?
In the past year, if I’d answered the question the way people want me to answer it, it would have gone like this: “I do data entry for a mapping company,” or “I’m a camp counselor, and yes, I’m ten years older than most of the other counselors,” or “I pack boxes for shipping from a warehouse,” or “I don’t have a job.” Thrilling! But I never wanted to identify myself in those ways. None of those things are my identity. Leading backpacking trips for summer camps was close, but for me to really want to identify myself by my job, I need to work for a top-notch organization with a mission that I fully support, and I have to be doing something for that organization that makes me happy.
Until that day, I’d much rather answer “what do you do” with the things that I do that make me happy. I’m an ultralight backpacker. I’m a writer. I’m a baker. I’ve been paid to do a few of those things on very rare occasions (although that was usually a secondary or tertiary responsibility of the job), but they define me as a person more than any regular source of income I’ve ever had. Even if I ever get that dream job, and I get paid to hike, write, and bake, it’ll just be a nice coincidence that my identity and my job happen to line up.
So again, I ask, what is your answer to the question:
What do you do?