“So, what do you do?” I was recently asked at party.
This innocuous conversation starter paralyzed me. I froze, momentarily unable to come up with an answer that would have been both acceptable to this person and also supportive of where I am in life.
What does the question “What do you do?” really mean? Most of us interpret it as being asked what we do for a living. But could it not also mean what we do to express ourselves? What our passion is? What gets us out of bed in the morning?
I finally answered, “Well, it’s complicated. I am a writer, but there isn’t any money in writing.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt myself shrinking in front of this person who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about what I did for a living. And yet, there was a part of me that wanted to appear as if I have my sh*t together, that at 53, I’ve figured out this thing called life.
So in an effort to save face, I dove into the story I’ve told a dozen times about how in September, in my second year of massage therapy school, I tore my rotator cuff and couldn’t continue with the program. How my body forced me to withdraw and how I am now starting to consider Somatic Movement training. The longer I babbled, the more I felt myself sinking and growing invisible, while this person’s gaze moved from my face in search of something more interesting in the room, at which point I stopped talking.
I imagine that most people have a simple answer to this question. They don’t overthink it the way I do. They may answer with, “I’m a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, an accountant, a lawyer or doctor, I run my own business”—all acceptable and respectable trades and professions in our externally focused society. I imagine the conversation getting fleshed out with more clarifying questions, moving organically, the way easy conversations tend to do—words floating on the surface of acceptable truths.
But for practicing artists and creatives of all kinds, who do not earn an annual wage dictated by salary ranges, who do not have labels that easily describe how they spend majority of their waking hours, the answer to, “What do you do?” can be a minefield.
The next day, over a bowl of steaming pho, my mother innocently asked, “So, what is your plan?” in reference to how I plan to financially support myself, now that I am not returning to massage therapy school and my student loan will need to be paid back.
I noticed the familiar pull to respond with acceptable answers, such as: “I plan to go on Indeed and look for a job,” or, “I guess I’ll have to go back to doing what I have experience in and what guarantees me a dependable income.” But instead, I let myself float in the discomfort of the flotsam and jetsam that is my life and said, “I don’t know what my plan is.”
I do not have a university degree. I am two courses shy from completing The Insurance and Risk Management Program. I have one year of massage therapy school under my belt. I’ve reached level II of the Early Childhood Development Program. I took English and Anthropology classes at the local university. I have taken countless creative writing classes, yoga teacher training classes, and participated in Rosen Method training. I’ve experienced life, but possess no certificate or diploma, no degree to hang on my wall. My spirit animal is a bee, and I go from experience to experience led by the radar of curiosity. I collect the nectar of knowledge that attracts me, and once I’ve learned what I consider to be enough, I move on to the next thing.
I have been called a flake for this behavior—and believe me when I say, I have judged myself harshly for not finishing anything.
But I ask this:
What if completing a goal just for the sake of proving to the world that I did it is not essential to how I want to live my life, nor in line with who I am? What if how I define success doesn’t align with how society defines success?
I am not a collector of certificates, diplomas, or degrees. My lifelong learning is not linear; it’s a beautiful, jumbled mess that has taken me years to create. It is not mapped out by external expectations. Some might say I am a master at making excuses, or lack the stamina to finish anything, but life is not about finishing or proving ourselves in hopes of receiving the stamp of outside approval. It’s not about striving, accomplishing, or collecting proof of our worth. Life is about experiencing, flowing, changing, experimenting, risking, falling, and getting up only to do it all over again.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud anyone who has the staying power to get their doctorate, or those who choose to stay in a corporate job for decades and retire at 65 with a pension and a property in Arizona. It is what is right for them. But I also celebrate those who have chosen a different way of life. Those without titles or shiny plaques hanging on their office walls, who live an unconventional life and have no simple answer to the question “What do you do?”
If your journey has been anything like mine and the universe has gently (or not so gently) stripped away everything that no longer serves you, only to leave you standing at a party with no idea how to answer that dreaded question, know that you are not alone.
If the possibility exists that I will not make enough money to support myself with my passion, then the opposite must be true as well. Every time the Universe took away another crutch, more time availed itself to do what I love the most: write. It is the only thing that has not gone by the wayside. It is what I want to do when I wake up in the morning and practice in one form or another every day. It is the nectar that feeds my spirit.
Mr. Fred Rogers said:
“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.”
The next time I am asked, “So, what do you do?” I will say, “I am working on being the best human I can be. I practice creativity every day. I am passionate about writing. I am true to my calling. I give freely of what I love to do.”
I realize this kind of revelation may not fly with everyone, but there is the possibility that it will create an opening for a meaningful conversation about why we do what we do, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll glean a little more wisdom from the light that animates us from within.