“What do you do?” That question! — what do you do — we automatically associate it with how we make our money, as if our careers are the only activities we participate in that are worth reporting to a small-talking stranger at a cocktail party. “I’m a nurse, I’m a teacher, I’m a banker.”
Until recently, I had never thought twice about answering this question. It seemed straightforward — simply an icebreaker to open the gates and allow for the possibility of finding something in common (or at least something of interest) to discuss with this person you may or may not connect with for longer than two minutes. But, as I stray slowly further from the traditional corporate norm and mould my passions and talents into hopeful sources of potential income, I find this question to be not only baffling, but startling and stressful, leading to unintended confusion and perceived negative judgement.
What do I do? I write. I plan. I paint. I sing. I live.
The idea for this post stemmed from a realization that, when asked this question, I found myself beginning to make excuses for the life I have chosen rather than illustrating, with truthful, raw enthusiasm, what exactly it is that I do every day. I reconnected last week with an old friend/fellow dreamer who had experienced similar self-doubt Understanding all too well her intrinsic uncertainties, I reached out to offer some “I feel your pain” support.
She and I are not alone in this world of alternative-path-takers. It is hard work to start a business, to travel on nothing, to dedicate your life to writing, or creating, or helping others — incredibly hard work. There is a reason they call it “the road less traveled.” No one is telling you what your job is. No one is coaching you through each step. No one is handing you a paycheck every other Thursday. A fear of failure can be crippling, even with the strongest support network. A fear of passing by opportunities to hit traditional milestones (buying the house, starting the family) can paralyze your emotional strength. Fear can take over — but it can also be overcome.
For many reasons, Austin was always the end goal (at least the end goal for now). It is a city full of opportunity and youth and imagination. I had taken two years to explore and play and learn about the world by exploring and playing and experiencing the world, and now it was time to be a big girl. Austin was where it would all come together. With the unemployment rate below five percent, I would find a job easily — I would find the job easily. Quickly, however, I realized that life doesn’t exactly work like that. From my parents’ dining room table in Baltimore, I sent out approximately one hundred resumes. One. Freaking. Hundred. Resumes, but nobody seemed to have a (paid) position for this new girl.
Setbacks aside, I was moving to Austin. Seventy-two hours before I boarded my Southwest flight to ATX, I accepted a job “teaching” one-year-olds at a private preschool on the northern edge of the city — not ideal, but it would get me where I wanted to be.
I had accomplished my goal — I had gotten to Austin! But within thirty days of working the grind and neglecting my real professional passions, the frustration began seeping through. While working with children can be rewarding (I will forever love coaching kids’ snow-sports), it was not why I moved to Austin. I woke up every morning dreading the logo-embossed red polo shirt and looking forward to my lunch break before the day even began. It wasn’t it.
I would argue that many of us find ourselves in similar situations, feeling “stuck” somewhere — stuck working some dreadful job; stuck in some neglectful relationship; stuck in some crumby town with the weight of hopelessness and the fear of change keeping you anchored, chained to a life you wish would change itself. But the fact is, as long as we are alive, the opportunity to go after the life you want is there. “If you’re still breathing you’re the lucky one.” I am fortunate to be young enough that my obstacles are few, and I am damn lucky to have found a partner in crime who may follow me anywhere my wild heart decides to take us. However short your rope is, there is always time; there is always energy; and your dreams deserve attention.
Back to the cocktail party, we need to reassess the expectations behind, “What do you do?” There are more important questions than those regarding career accomplishments — What do you enjoy? Where do you want to go? Who do you admire? There are other sources of common ground between people than likely tax brackets.
How we respond to such questions must also be reexamined. No more excuses, no more negativity. “Never waste time trying to explain yourself to people who are committed to misunderstanding you.” Live your life with confidence! Have pride in your choices, and tell your story with spunk and positive spirit. Forget small-talk — Talk big! We each get one life. What is it worth if you waste it doing nothing that you love?