Why I Hate the Question “So, what do you do?”

It never fails: You encounter new people and the first question they ask is, “So, what do you do?” Occasionally you’ll encounter people that seem to ask this question out of a genuine interest in you and your life, but most of the time you can tell that it’s their way of quickly sizing up your social status, paycheck, and your potential worth to them.

I hate this question for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I do not have a socially acceptable answer. What do I do? I “do” a lot of things. I write, design web sites, take pictures, cook, clean, run marathons, make jewelry, do landscaping, read, do needlework, care for my family, manage the finances, travel, and a whole host of other things. I even get paid for a fair number of them. The trouble is, these are not “jobs,” so they are not suitable answers for the “What do you do?” question. Because I don’t have a “real” job and a career focus, there is nothing I can say that allows people to pigeonhole me in the way that they would like to.

If I say I’m a writer, they assume that means books and want to know what books I’ve published. Writing articles and corporate materials on a freelance basis isn’t “writing” to them. If I say I design websites, they assume I’m talking about designs for big corporations. The designs that I do for small businesses, artists, and as contest entries don’t “count.” If I say I don’t have a “job,” but that I simply work on whatever moves me at the moment, then I’m a bum. If I say I do “nothing and everything” I get a look like I should be locked up somewhere.

This is fun, in a twisted way. I like to watch people try to parse my life into something they can judge. I enjoy defying their expectations of what a woman of my age “should” be. I should have a big career, or at least several kids to justify my opting out of the workforce. That I don’t have or, more importantly, want these things baffles most people. How can someone who is educated and of a certain class simply choose to do (what they see as) nothing?

The answer lies in some very careful thought and planning on my part. I realized early on that I was not cut out for the cube farm. I tried to do the 9-to-5 thing and failed miserably. I hated the stress, the office politics, the games, the backstabbing, and that I had to keep busy for eight hours in a job that took three to do. I hated the clothes, the makeup, and the commute. I hated that I couldn’t be creative and instead had to follow the tried-and-true line. Corporate life was, to me, mind-numbing and soul-destroying. In short, I hated everything that had to do with working.

You would think that this attitude would have left me homeless and broke before I was twenty-five, but I made a plan. I knew I hated work, but I needed money. What to do? I sucked it up and worked for six years, saving every single penny I made that wasn’t required for living expenses. I lived very low to the ground for those six years and incurred no debt. At the end of six years I had a tidy nest egg and I was able to literally buy my freedom. I bought a small house in a low cost of living area, budgeted carefully to determine what I would need to make to cover my expenses, and set about finding work to cover those needs.

In the beginning it was tough, but I had the savings to cover me until I found my groove. I took on any project that paid money, finding out through trial and error what I enjoyed most and what would pay me enough to make it worthwhile. Now I make my living doing a hodgepodge of things, usually working on whatever strikes my fancy at the moment. I don’t have a “job,” I have “income streams” that I can tap when I want to. If I want to take pictures, I have places that pay me to do that. If I want to write or work on a website, I know people who will pay me for that, too. If I need extra money or want a break from the other things, I know people who will pay me to cook or clean. There are many things I can do and I’ve figured out how to turn each one into at least a small income. I make enough money to cover my living expenses, afford a few luxuries, and save for the future. I set my own hours and work, for the most part, where I want. I’m never bored and I have all the time I need to spend with family and deal with the things in life that have to get done. I get to do things that are important to me now, rather than waiting for “someday.”

If it sounds like an idyllic life, it is. Right up until someone asks the question, “What do you do?” Then I stumble as I try to find an answer that won’t make the questioner feel that I am useless to society. When they find out that I don’t do anything that they can put their finger on, most of them move across the room to talk with someone who clearly has more going for them. This used to bother me much more than it does now, but I’ve mostly gotten over it. I figure that if they are so narrow minded as to cast me off based on one question then they are not someone I would want to know, anyway.

Why we feel compelled to pigeonhole people based on their occupation could be the subject of a book. What makes us seek such a narrow definition of people? In most cases, a person’s occupation isn’t even the thing that makes them unique or forms the basis of who they are. Most people are far more than “accountants,” or “construction workers,” or “computer programmers,” or whatever title they hold. Most people are mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. They are caregivers, friends, sports enthusiasts, hobbyists, runners, walkers, volunteers, churchgoers, and many other things, all at once.

The trouble is, these things (generally) don’t produce income. Thus they cannot be used to determine a person’s social class, potential worth as a networking tool, or the likelihood that they own the same things we do. It’s pretty sad that the thing we use most often to identify someone (and as a consequence, choose whether to associate with that person or not) is their occupation slash earning potential. There is so much more to people than where they work and what they earn.

Over the years I’ve come to consider it a privilege not to have an easy answer to this question. I’ve met many people who would like to live as I do but who aren’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. That I’ve made it work is a badge of honor to me. If you, too, want to buy your freedom so that you have no socially acceptable answer to the “What do you do?” question, I can give you some tips on how to get there, even if I can’t tell you how to answer the question. The main thing is to learn how to make work (and income) a means to other ends, not the end in and of itself.

Identify what you value most in your life

In other words, if you died tomorrow, what would you want to do today? Chances are it won’t be your job. You may like your job, but chances are it isn’t what comes to mind first. You’ll probably choose to spend time with your family, then do some other things like travel and maybe pursue a hobby you’re passionate about. These are the things that you want to be doing in your life. If it’s your job, fine, but be honest. Looking at life this way can make you see that the high wages, prestige, titles, etc. you get from your job aren’t always the most important things to you. Yes, they’re nice, but they probably aren’t what means the most to you or even what define you as a person.

Figure out what you can do that will allow you to honor those things you’re identified as important to you

If spending time with family is most important to you, you need something with a flexible schedule or that you can do with the family along. If you have a hobby you’re passionate about, can you turn that into something that produces income? You probably have a lot of skills you can draw on to create income, so make a list and then figure out how you would go about turning them into money. Freelance work? Part time/seasonal jobs? Full time work but on a reduced schedule? There are lots of options, but you have to do the research. Remember, you don’t have to lock into one thing. If there are six things you really enjoy doing and that meet your criteria, you can do them all (maybe not at the same time, but during different periods). You aren’t looking for a “job” or “career,” you’re looking for “income streams” that you can tap when you need money.

Save, save, save, pay down debt and learn how to make your money stretch

While you’re still working at your “regular” job, start saving every bit of extra money that you can and get rid of all debt (you can probably keep a mortgage-I do-but only if it is reasonable). Take this time to learn how to cut your necessary expenses such as your grocery bill, your electric and phone bills, insurance, etc. You will need all the extra money to buy the freedom to pursue your own agenda. Things will be slow going at first once you cut the corporate umbilical cord, so you need to be prepared. Otherwise you’ll be running back to the corporate world after a month.


While you’re still employed, start trying out some of your income producing ideas to see if you can get people to pay you for the things you want to do. Sock away any money you earn into your savings.

Get ready to sacrifice

Doing “nothing” certainly isn’t the road to riches, but it can allow you to live comfortably. Unless you are incredibly lucky to land a great gig right off the bat, you will need to learn how to live low to the ground. That means a lot of extras get tossed out the window. You can probably get them back later, but when you’re trying to buy your freedom you need to make a lot of sacrifices. This seems to be the step that hangs many people up. They don’t want to let go of the “extras,” even if it’s in pursuit of a better goal.

Do the math

Once you’ve pared down the extras, figure out the bare minimum you need to earn to cover your living expenses and your self employment taxes. This is probably less than you think if you’ve cut out most of your extras, gotten rid of your debt, and learned how to reduce expenses. Break that bare minimum number down into weekly, daily, and hourly goals. Now you know what you have to make per hour or day to survive each month. Everything above that number is extra for savings or some fun. This helps you to track how you’re doing and how to price your services.

Walk away and don’t look back

When you’ve saved enough money for a cushion and figured out how to make the money you need to survive, walk away from the job, the stress and the things that aren’t compatible with the life you want to create for yourself.

Figure out what to tell people

Figure out what to tell people who ask, “What do you do?” Sorry. I don’t have a good answer for that one, yet.

Doing “nothing” is very rewarding. You have freedom to choose the work you do and, to a large extent, when and where you do it. You can do a variety of things instead of the same old thing day after day. You get to do the things that are important to you now, instead of hoping you’ll still have some stamina left when you retire. You’re more available for the things that have to get done like waiting for repairmen, grocery shopping, caring for sick family members, or simply dealing with chores. The difference is, these things are no longer compressed into stressed weekends or holidays. You can spread out some of the “have to’s” with the “want to’s.” Because you aren’t tied to a “job,” you’re more insulated from economic downturns. If one income stream dries up, you have others to tap. And, most fun of all, you get to watch people’s faces when they ask, “What do you do?” and you don’t have a ready answer, or you list all the things that you do. In short, you get to have a life.

You know, in writing that last paragraph I just thought of the answer to the dreaded question. The next time someone asks me “What do you do?”, I’m going to answer, “I live my life.” Simple and true.

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22 Responses to Why I Hate the Question “So, what do you do?”

  1. Brenda says:

    I just tell people I’m a ‘Domestic Engineer’. It might actually be nothing but at least it sounds like an important nothing???
    Then I will ask what they do, as most people prefer to talk about themselves anyway.

  2. deanna says:

    This is only a problem if you actually care what people think when you answer. Anyone that judges is probably not someone I am going to get along with anyway, so this is never an issue. People are free to pigeon hole me if they like, but there is no reason for me to worry about it.

  3. Annie Jones says:

    When someone asks me that, my stock answer is “What do I do about what?” That usually catches them off guard, and somehow makes the entire conversation that follows a lot more lighthearted.

  4. Alexandria says:

    I agree to some extent, but I think you read too much into it, personally.

    I have struggled with this a bit since my spouse stays home. So anyway, any time you say a man stays home, everyone wants to offer him a job. That’s what I have learned.

    It used to annoy me, but in the end we turned it to our advantage. He does some work on his hobbies so now when people ask what he does we just go with that. In the end I find a lot of people ask that question because it is just natural to network. I found it wasn’t as productive to say he does “nothing” as it was to mention the things he does do. In the end he gets more work that way – as more people understand what he does do. I think in your case it is much the same. I don’t think it is always necessarily people sizing you up. Genuinely they just want to help and understand.

    However, if my spouse was not interested in ANY paid work at all, I know it would be a lot worse. It would make just about every social meeting ackward. For that it is a shame the way people react sometimes. To have that kind of freedom really should be admired, but it just isn’t in our society.

  5. Pete says:

    I attribute the “What do you do?” question mostly to mindless smalltalk habits. It’s one of those standard cliche ice breaker questions that are taught by many, both in the business (Sales Leads 101) and social worlds.

    I do agree that the question is often used to size up people in business settings. When that question is asked of me, I try to quickly judge whether the person is sincere vs. just rattling off a scripted line or looking to add another client to their CPA firm. Robots get a nonstandard answer from me, intended to wake them up.

  6. Hilary says:

    I’m guessing that when people ask “What do you do?” they’re asking “What do you do to make money?”, right? So for that, you could say that you’re a freelancer, since the things you describe are on a per article / per photo / per website basis.

    But, of course, if you want to spark discussion, that answer won’t do. I’m sure Miss Manners has a lot to say on this subject.

  7. lisa says:

    This is actually an American thing. I’ve never encountered it living in Europe.

    I agree with you. Too much emphasis put on a Title which really doesn’t say anything about the person.

  8. FruWiki Meg says:

    I don’t mind the question. If they want to know, I have plenty of things to say on that topic. However, what I cant stand is when I tell people about all the different online projects I’m working on and then, after all that, they have the guts to ask me: “So, do you have a job?” GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!

    The funny thing is, in this area, saying that I was a house wife would probably be miles better than saying that I do anything online or as a writer. But while I am a work-from-home wife, I don’t dare insult the true “domestic engineers” by calling myself one. My husband is actually more domestically inclined than I am, which is certainly a blessing for us both.

  9. Fish says:

    You can always tell them that you are a human being, not a human doing ;^) That usually confuses them.

    I hate that question too, and then hate myself more when I answer something stupid like, “I’m just a mom.”

  10. Lisa says:

    Interesting that you don’t just say you are a free lance writer/photographer and do other odds and ends between jobs. It would be easily understood by the masses.

  11. melwrc says:

    Most people don’t ask “what do you do?” to size you up. It’s a conversation starter for most. Most people spend at least 40 hours of their week working, so it’s natural to be a first topic when meeting someone. I ask the question regularly. I’d be annoyed if I got one of the many glib answers being suggested. You have no reason to be ashamed or defensive for being a freelancer with a variety of income streams. Now if someone follows up your answer with a jerk response, feel free to act however you want. Just don’t be the first one to act like a jerk.

  12. jj says:

    I think this is definitely more of an American thing. It does come up in conversations in Europe but it’s never the first thing people ask you. Plus, talking about work is boring!

  13. Texas Girl says:

    I admire you for living the way you do! This world today is far too materialistic and if more of us lived like our grandparents did, simply, debt-free, the world would be a better place.

    Personally the worse question to me when I meet somebody, after they find out I’m a SAHM, is “What does your HUSBAND do?” Now why on eatth would anybody care to know that unless they want to find out how much $$ we have?

  14. Sue LaPointe says:

    Jennifer –

    Thanks for an excellent post – I’ve looked at this question, too. Mostly the responses I get now are “Wow! That sounds interesting!” Having such a ‘mysterious’ job also comes in handy when I’m out networking… chances are that if they don’t know what it is, they don’t need (or think they don’t!) my services.

    I’m going to post a link to your post in my blog:

  15. kathy says:

    I always have fun with this one too. I photograph weddings, I do post-processing for another photography studio, I raise my daughter, and my husband and I farm, oh, and I have a herd of goats. I am also starting nursing school in the fall. My favorite answer at the moment, just because of the looks I get and the conversations it starts, is simply “i’m a goatherder”.

  16. Living Off Dividends & Passive Income says:

    I got asked that very same question recently. I replied “I go to the beach, read a lot of books and usually get drunk by 5”.

    All of a sudden everyone wanted my job!

  17. Cheryl Cavender says:

    When forms ask for “Occupation” I put down “Domestic Administrator”. Definitely a more accurate description of what I do compared to “Stay-At-Home Mom” (I’m on the go and not home much) or “Housewife” (I’m not married to my house, I’m married to my husband.) Most people reading “Domestic Administrator” love the term (doctors, nurses, tax prep.)

  18. Dody says:

    Youe an independent contractor, that
    s what you “do”. AKA self employed.

  19. arize arize says:

    Just smile and pretend that you didn’t hear the question. In fact, I do this often when I run into guys who are interested in showing off their new mundane stuff. I simply smile and act like it is unimportant to me. And it is unimportant because it is not a goal of mine.

  20. Rachel says:

    I totally understand how you feel about that comment. I write screenplays for film and while I’m still “a newbie”.. which really means I haven’t technically sold one yet… Working at selling screenplays is a full time job in of itself. I have an agent and good connections, but you still have to be flexible and available to make calls, smooze, and generally take charge of your goal. When I tell people I’m a writer.. they think books like you said. Even if I say I’m a screenwriter they say, “Do you have anything published?” And then the irritation of wanting to scream… I said SCREENwriting. lol.. and then I find myself back at that position of.. how do I answer that question. Eh, I figure sticking with writer works. Who cares what all those people think anyway! :)

    Thanks for the article!

  21. Caroline says:

    I smile and reply: “Whatever I want.” Leaves ’em guessing. Serves ’em right for being nosy.

  22. Paul says:

    This problem is in your own head. Simply say “I do lots of things”. Personally I would find this intriguing. If a person considers you a bum because of this, you need to question whether that is really a fair or accurate assessment. It is not. And therefore you should not put yourself in the position where you feel you have to justify yourself to them your worth.
    So many people would love to escape the rat race but wouldn’t know what to do to make ends meet. You managed it, be proud of it. The people who think you need a dull 9-5 to be considered worthy of their approval are frankly not worth knowing.
    Be aloof, do not bow to anything if it does not agree with your own logic.

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