Answering the Question “What Do You Do?”

My in-laws 50 years ago. Yesterday I told my father-in-law he was a dashing young man, and he replied "Was?" Oops.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer.”

“What do you write?”

That used to be a simple question to answer. My Capitol Hill days? Speeches and constituent correspondence. Journalism? Breaking news and investigative series. Think tank? Research papers. Nonprofit arts advocacy CEO? Testimony, filings, and a blog.

I need a short answer now.

In the last few months I have 1) covered breaking news as a stringer for a UK-based magazine; 2) ghostwritten editorials and other content for consulting clients; 3) authored blog posts; 4) written two short memoir pieces, the first of which will be published next week; 5) prepared a nonfiction book proposal complete with sample chapters; 6) and written a creative non-fiction piece to be workshopped later this month when I begin my MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I’m enjoying the diversity of projects (although I wish more of them paid). But I lacked a short response when asked that initial question, repeatedly, this weekend at a family reunion for my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary.

My stumbling attempts led to blank stares and awkward silences.

Maybe I need a new approach. I shuttle my kids a lot, so I’m a chauffeur. I love my gas grill, so I’m a short-order cook. I’m waging a (losing) battle with weeds, so I’m in lawn maintenance. All of those pay as much as the literary journal that’s about to publish my memoir piece.

I kept reminding myself this weekend to be flattered at others’ interest in my life. I avoided resentment at the question, but I still didn’t welcome it.

If I’m truly a writer, I should be able to craft a short and satisfying response.

How do you see yourself when asked “What do you do?” and how do you answer?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

29 Responses to “Answering the Question “What Do You Do?””

  1. Hi…yeah, this is a hard one for me to answer, beyond “I do creative things”. Then they want to know what I mean by that. Please bear with me: I am answering the question posted, not thumping my chest to say “look at me! So……… (triple ellipses for the length) Writer; Playwright; Professional Storyteller; Director; Teaching Artist (of creative drama and storytelling); Curriculum Developer; NYS certified Drama Specialist; puppeteer; Workshop Coach; Professional Development Coordinator & Facilitator; Actor; Producer; Arts Administrator; and right now I know there are one or two more things I could add, but I’m tired.

    so..I have a hard time saying ONE thing. I’m not. It also depends: if I’m meeting someone in a particular setting (theater, let’s say), that is what I lead off with, so the order changes.
    If anyone has a better answer for me: PLEASE, help me out!

    • I think the easiest answer is one thing depending on who you are talking to. Throwing in the rest of the stuff just confuses people. They’ll only remember the first thing you say anyway and latch on to that. You are proud of all you do, but narrow it down to one. Have a general answer for general conversations. Then just let the conversation flow from there.

  2. I took a course in “business for creatives” and was told I needed to develop an ‘elevator speech’ .. imagine you step into an elevator with a wealthy patron of the arts and he/she says ‘what do you do?’ as they hit the button for the 4th floor – you have 4 floors worth of elevator time to explain what you do to this potential opportunity .. what would you say to convince them you might be worth their time and money? Difficult question indeed. Sorry bornstoryteller, but I think you’ll need to more concise and direct haha .. KW

    • KW…I NEED HELP!!πŸ™‚

    • You know, I’ve been honing my elevator pitch for my consulting work; I need to develop a more general-purpose one.

      I’ve heard a similar one, how to describe something you’ve written (short story, novel, etc.) as a “TV Guide” blurb, the short plot summary teaser.

      • Loving that you’re talking elevator pitch (my specialty). Two thoughts for you:

        1) Tell them your dream as if it is already true. They will believe you.

        2) Tell them why what you do is useful to them. I use this with entrepreneurs often. People want to hear what’s in it for them. What you do has a purpose in their life (it’s true), so tell them that.

        I really enjoyed your post, and hope you find words you feel confident and content saying.

        • Hey Lauree!

          This is really great advice, thanks. I struggle with #1 sometimes because I fear coming off as pretentious, but I’m a big believer in manifesting your reality so I cringe when I put negative energy out there, expressing my goal as a mere hope. As to #2, that’s great. It’s certainly the approach I take with this blog and my Twitter feed, but I don’t think I’ve thought sufficiently enough about doing that in direct interaction. You’ve given me something to reflect upon.

  3. Great question Patrick. I actually replied on Facebook, but I’ll leave a comment here as well for anyone reading.

    I think that answering the question “what do you do?” is changing with the times. Especially for creatives like us. Now it’s not sufficient to say “I write” or “I blog” or “I make things.” Plus it’s not fair to yourself, as a creative thinker, to restrict yourself to one certain “act” or “calling.”

    Now when I’m asked what I do, I simply show off or talk about some of my recent work. I say “here’s a book I wrote and here’s an article I wrote for Forbes” or I pull up a website and say “I helped design this” or something like that. People don’t need titles any more. We need to refer less to pitiful “titles” and instead demonstrate our abilities through our actions.

    What do you think?

    • I think there’s a lot to that. Not sure how that would have helped me this weekend; I could have pulled up my blog on my smartphone but that probably wouldn’t have translated well to the more senior crowd there! I like your point about thinking beyond task labels, I need to reflect on that.

  4. I feel for you. At least you’re trying to give an answer.πŸ™‚

    When my book came out in 2000, my husband used to get frustrated with me whenever we’d run into friends, etc. Afterward he’d say “Why didn’t you tell them about your book??!!”

    I’ve gotten much better over the years and it doesn’t bother me anymore. For the general public, I tailor my answer to how interested the person seems to be. If I say something like “I have a book for writers” or “I do a travel blog” and I see their eyes glaze over (which they frequently do – it’s as if people don’t know what those things could be) then I leave it at that. Only the truly interested bother to ask for details, and then their interest warms me enough to get more specific.

    I hate that whole elevator pitch thing and in that department I don’t do well.

    ~ Milli

    • BTW, how is your book proposal going? Any nibbles yet?

      (Don’t forget, I want to be your first book customer when it comes out. :))

    • I once lost a student council race because I ran into two friends on election day, thought it would be rude to remind them to vote for me (they very much wanted to) and they forgot to vote; I lost by one vote. I totally understand your hesitation to discuss your (excellent) book. And I share your allergy to the elevator pitch, but I completely get why we all need one.

  5. Simplest answer. “I’m a non fiction writer specializing in ……” Unfortunately for relatives who know nothing about bloggin, that is just better left unsaid. They just don’t get it.

    I have heard of the elevator pitch, not only for what you do but also for our books. What is your book about? Uh….” I’m still working on that.

    • Thanks, Robin. You hit on something there, this post was prompted in particular by interactions with sweet, sweet relatives who really don’t understand today’s social media. That added to the translation challenge.

  6. My elevator speech changes depending on the person I am talking to, the time of day, and even the weather! Seriously though, it is continually evolving and really depends on the audience. Plus, K.I.S.S. really works well in these kinds of situation.

  7. I still find this awkward as hell. I actually have an answer, which is my tag line. “I create thought provoking art that heals the soul”. That usually creates interest. (When it doesn’t create odd looks). The follow up question is, “What kind of art?” THAT is when it gets awkward for me. Uh … I photograph and paint still life’s of toys? People automatically conjure up what they think that looks like in their heads and I can almost guarentee you … it isn’t my work they are thinking of. So I try to explain. “The work is conceptual. The toys are not set up in a scenario, like a tea party. I place them intuitively, then take hundreds of photographs before selecting 5 or 6 to use as photographs, and maybe 8 more to use as reference photos for paintings.”

    HUH?? Hell, *I* wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about if I wasn’t an artist.

    Really, I should be using my artist statement to answer that follow up question. But although I like it in written form, it doesn’t feel natural to speak it.

    Artist statement – “I use toys as a subject matter to create a connection with the viewer through the shared experience of play. The images depicted may be somewhat disturbing despite the innocent nature of the plastic playthings. I believe connection, healing and understanding arise through communication. I intend for the viewer to allow thoughts and feelings to arise for examination and potential conversation.”

    So, yah … I feel you on this one. After 11 years as a pro (5 years doing this “new” work) … I am still kind of stuck on this topic. I do my best to steer them to a visual so I don’t have to talk about it so much. You don’t have that luxury.

  8. Seemingly an easy question for most people: “what do you do?” is nearly impossible to simply answer for some of us.

    as a kid, I remember reading a biography about Ben Franklyn and wondering how he had so many different professions while the adults I knew mostly had a single lifelong occupation as an engineer, fireman, teacher, nurse etc. Is the age of specialization ending or are some of us just outside the norm? Small business people certainly need to adapt with chaning times and markets and walk in many different pairs of shoes.

    For people who do so many different things I agree with other commentators that the best answer we give depends on our audience.

    As an artist, writer, researcher, entrepreneur, dad, etc, I’ve sometimes answered only half jokingly: ” I do everything! what do you need?

    • One advantage Ben Franklin has was that at some point he was so famous no one would bother to ask him what he did.

      I like the idea of tailoring it for your audience. That is true in marketing but frankly applies in any life situation with this question.

  9. I also do not like this question because it does not define me as an individual. I’m learning to answer it with I’m a writer and I don’t divulge further.

    • I like your resistance to being summed up. Here in DC this is the first question people ask, and they don’t listen to you beyond the first few words of the answer.

      With this family event, I know they were being curious and sincere, so avoiding further divulging could perhaps be done by a deft change of subject.

  10. Big question we face as writers. But blogs like yours will raise awareness of the fact that your writing is enough. I wrote several posts about this a while back, one was “My Name Is Ollin, And I’m A Writer” and my one post that made it to Freshly Pressed was entitled “I’m Sorry, What Do You Do, Again?” It was a guest post.

    The conclusion we both mad was that in the end you have to be happy with the fact that for you writing is enough and it doesn’t have to fascinate people. Most of the time it doesn’t. But who the heck cares what people think, Patrick?

    It’s your life. They have no idea what it’s like being you. Trust yourself and keep going.

    • Hi Ollin,

      I recall the guest post now, that was how I discovered your great blog. I bet my subconscious was channeling that post when I wrote this one!

      “Trust yourself and keep going.” Great advice.

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