What Do You Do?
New York City elevators make us masters of small talk - efficient exchanges in the span of a minute or less. (Excellent elevator pitch practice.)
Seventeen years ago, I got on the elevator at the 15th floor and nodded at my suit-donned neighbor.
He smiled, “What do you do?”.
I️ smiled back. “I’m the International Director of Public and Investor Relations for a technology company.”
That’s when things got a little awkward. “Oh, umm, that sounds interesting. And, uh, (deliberate and prolonged gaze at my protruding belly), when are you due?”
Aaaaah. The baby. “Three more weeks.”
Cue merciful arrival at the lobby and a quick have-a-nice-day as I waddled away.
To be fair, I️ hadn’t had a kid yet. So that my first thoughts were about work. As they had been for the previous 10 years of my life.
Since my first corporate gig, ‘what do you do?” had been a quick and easy way to tell someone who I was. It spoke of my interests, my ambition, my education, my hard work and my high worth. This last one especially helpful in establishing myself in my male-dominated world, where what do you do seemed less about sharing common interests and more about establishing hierarchy. My lengthy title responses to what do you do were defiant and in-your-face: yes, I am a pretty girl -- but I am also pretty smart, pretty driven, and pretty damn successful. I have earned my seat at this table and your respect along with it. Speaking of which, what do you do? Hmmm.
The defiance came from years of hard work, uphill battles, unspoken #metoo stories, and the loneliness that accompanies being the only woman in the room. It was not just a statement (yes, I am worthy), but a challenge (are you worthy of me?). And it had become so commonplace and critical to my existence, that I was hard-pressed to separate what I do from who I am.
The elevator exchange alerted me to my reflexive response. It mirrored for me my defensive stance and offered me a chance to let some of that go. (Three weeks later, motherhood tossed my defenses, ambition, humility and emotions into a washing machine and set it to HIGH. What do you do and when are you due became inextricably and irrevocably linked in a manner worthy of a separate conversation - stay tuned.)
Years have passed since that fateful meeting. Over time my titles have changed, as has the tone of my voice. On occasion, I have responded with a shrug. The question has lost its clarity. So much of what I do is unnamed. If you have ever called me for free legal advice, you know I am a great lawyer (I watch a lot of Judge Judy). And doctor (Grey’s Anatomy). And therapist (Dr. Jenn). If you’re signed up for my newsletter you know I am an avid thinker. If you’ve seen me with my family you know I am a great wife, an obsessive mother, a compulsive keeper of the hearth and home (in the emotional sense; sadly my cleaning skills leave much to be desired).
Once after cardio class, a woman came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you are a dancer!’ No I am not! I laughed, flattered. You are what you do, she said confidently, and walked away.
I guess that’s why ‘what do you do?’ gets us up in arms. If we are what we do, then what we do means so much, It is what we spend our time doing. That indisputably limited resource of our existence. It is what our day-to-day lives look like and what we tell people is important enough to us to fill those precious days with.
And, at the same time, it really isn’t. What you do can be what you do that allows you to have the financial freedom to do the things that are important to you. It can be what you do to have the flexibility to spend time with the people who are important to you. It can be what you do that handles your to-do’s so that you have the opportunities to explore your creative endeavors. What you do does not define who you are. In fact, what you do can never come close to who you are. It is a sliver, a sampling, an oversimplified manifestation of a singular arm of all that you are. Like a sun’s ray, the answer to what you do is a beam cascading through the window. It is beautiful and warm, but one would be foolish to think that by recognizing the ray, they now know the sun.