Recently I was standing in line to board a flight, making small talk with those around me, and an earnest extrovert (who was doubtless in sales or marketing) asked me “What do you do?”. Oddly enough the question triggered a system failure in my brain, as it looped unsuccessfully in search of a correct or acceptable response. After a longish pause I muttered something about management consulting and continued on my way.
Later I considered why the question stumped me so. Part of the issue is I’ve never identified with things done merely to earn a living or for recreation. Being limited to something like that is faintly repulsive to me. I don’t mind the need of people to categorize/stereotype others, it’s merely a way for them to make sense of the world. In short, they’re building a model of who you are to guide them in further discussion. The problem I have is a simple answer will not always provide an accurate model. It generally doesn’t in my case.
So how should I answer the question?
Should I say;
- I’m an international energy systems engineer?
- I’m the founder of a gaming software company?
- I’m an inventor?
- I’m a technology product manager?
- I’m a program manager for space systems?
- I’m a book reviewer
- I’m a publisher?
- I’m an author?
- I’m a management consultant?
- I’m financially independent?
- I’m a masters swimmer?
- I’m retired?
An accurate answer requires much more than these simple statements, all of which are true but don’t get to the heart of the literal question. I wouldn’t be happy with any of these answers as my summation. Standing in line with strangers however requires a simple throwaway statement, one which conveys the balance of who you are without providing excessive detail. Better yet, the answer should provide the questioner nothing to engage (just in case they ARE in sales).
After a great deal of thought, I’ve come up with the response I’ll use going forward.
“Anything I choose.”