Let’s say you’re at a dinner party or a networking event where you’ve met someone for the first time and he/she asks, “So, what do you do for a living?” Or, maybe you’re having coffee with a former colleague, and the inevitable question comes up, “What are you doing these days?”
When you work full time at a job, it’s a simple answer to the first question. I am the “senior engineer” at XYZ; I work at ABC government agency and I’m a “research scientist;” or I am a consultant to startups. These are clear titles and roles.
The answer to the second question, “What are you doing these days?” may be tougher because you’re likely in a transitional phase where you’re figuring out what’s next and don’t have anything concrete to share. Awkward.
What do you do? What are you doing these days? These questions can stir up intense feelings of turmoil for some of us.
Some times this turmoil stems simply from difficulty talking about ourselves to strangers and knowing where to begin. That’s the introvert in us.
Some times we are engaged in several projects or gigs and it’s a struggle to choose which one to bring up to the person who just asked. We want to come off in the way that makes most sense and can build rapport. That’s the perfectionist in us.
Some times there’s a feeling of resistance in addressing this question at all, if being impolite wouldn’t kill our chances of turning a stranger into a friend. That’s the rebel in us.
Coming up with a label. It seems we are expected to come up with a socially acceptable label of who we are—teacher, artist, doctor, scientist, entrepreneur, stay-at-home parent—to sustain an appearance of being a responsible adult.
A label offers a quick idea of what we do. A shortcut. And it’s easy when you are a doctor or a dentist or a programmer, and that’s what you do primarily.
What if you are also a writer and a doctor and your writing is starting to take up a lot of your mental energy? What if your knitting is consuming your weeknight and weekend hours and your law practice is just what you do during the regular working day?
An uncomfortable exercise. As we struggle to answer the question, “what do you do?” whether it’s hypothetical or not it becomes clear that coming up with a single label that contains the core of what we do can be intellectually and emotionally draining.
Some of us feel uncomfortable giving simple answers. We feel it assumes the other isn’t interested in knowing more. We feel we aren’t giving a complete picture of who we are. We feel conflicted.
When this question is posed to me, my brain starts working at warp speed, as I try to fit myself neatly into a recognizable, as well as interesting, box for this particular person at this particular meeting place.
Sometimes at the risk of being seen as completely uninteresting, it’s just easier to use the label, “consultant,” even if it’s wide off the mark. But I don’t ever feel good with that response.
Why be uncomfortable? What I have come to understand is this.
We engage in this labeling of ourselves in service of helping others feel more comfortable. But should that be at the expense of our own comfort?
The truth is my life isn’t neat. My life is a jumble of creative endeavors and I like it that way.
I don’t feel pulled in all directions. I feel inspired by all my projects.
Can the whole view of us fit on one label then?
The vertical bar careerist. As a variant of Marci Alboher’s “slash careerist,” I prefer using for aesthetic reasons the “vertical bar” ( | ) in describing what I do.
I am an entrepreneur | blogger | workshop creator and leader | professional economist | program evaluator | public speaker.
I am all these vertical bars and more, including mother | wife | daughter | sister | friend | lion sketcher | labyrinth maker.
I am a complex person with needs and interests that aren’t linear. That may not make sense at first glance to people who don’t know me well.
What I choose to do doesn’t necessarily follow an external logic.
I do what interests me, aligns with my life’s purpose, and some of what I do solves a problem in the marketplace. That’s hard to see from the outside in.
I am a vertical bar careerist. I am a chameleon. My tribe is the ones who respond to the complexity of me. And, I appreciate them.
Instead of feeling uncomfortable, let’s add that vertical bar to our response. To the right of that vertical bar could be your side hustle, your serious weekend hobby, or the work you do for family, friends, and community.
Conversation sparker. And, when it’s our turn to ask, let’s replace the dull conversation starter with the conversation sparker, as Vanessa Van Edwards advises.
When we are genuinely curious about the other, let’s try her question instead, “Working on any personal passion projects?”
We may find vertical bar careerists blossoming everywhere.
I sure hope so.
I am genuinely a happy vertical bar careerist. I believe in engaging in work that taps into my best self, over and over again. And, I wish that for you.
Do you find yourself squirming a bit when asked what you do? Could it be you are a vertical bar careerist, too? What conversation sparkers have worked for you?
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A sprinkle of inspiration!
A gift for you.