How Do I Answer “What Do You Do?” When It’s… Complicated?

“What do you do?” seems to be one of the most dreaded questions. Especially for people in transition or who feel like what they’re doing might be judged. It makes us squirm a little…. or a lot.

It can be especially hard for introverts and perfectionists who like to think before talking and then speak in a thorough way. It’s hard to find a good simple answer!

And yet, we are faced with this question so often. It might sound like this in your head when you get that question:

  • “I better have something good to say, Now!”
  • “They’ll think I’m a freak if I tell the truth!”
  • “They’ll think I’m a loser if I don’t have a ‘legitimate’ answer.”
  • “I feel like I have no clear identity like other people have.”
  • “I don’t want them to know I have family money to support me.”
  • “Staying at home with kids doesn’t seem like a real answer. Maybe I should do more.”
  • “I have tons of ideas but they’re still messy and I hate talking about it at this stage.”
  • “I don’t want to tell them I’ve been sick for a year. Ugh.”

Can you relate? It’s… Complicated.

Even people who know what they do for work can get nervous with this question. It almost feels like the asker wants us to define ourselves, right now, in one sentence. It’s just impossible to summarize ourselves like that.

Since I talk to so many people in transition, I get this question about how to answer “What do you do?” all the time. I want to share some things I’ve found helpful.

Tips

  1. Accept that no one can define themselves or what they do in a way that feels complete. We are all so much more than a few words could convey.
  2. What you do for work (or not) is NOT your identity. You are a valuable person with a lot to offer, even if you don’t have an answer about work.
  3. The judgement from others that you imagine is mainly inside your head. People tend to be interested if you let them know a little of what’s real for you.
  4. You don’t have to say any more than you want to. Feel free to be vague and turn the questions back to them.
  5. You can share what’s real when it feels like your listener is a kindred spirit. Many people will enjoy taking the conversation deeper.

Sample Answers

With those tips in mind, it might be easier to come up with some simplified responses. Here are some samples that work surprisingly well for both the speaker and the listener.

“What do you do?”

  1. “Do you mean ‘What do I do for fun?'” (This simple one can lead to a very fun and easy conversation.)
  2. “That’s actually a complicated question because I’m in transition right now. I’m exploring a few options.”
  3. “I’m so happy that I have the opportunity to focus on parenting right now.”
  4. “Well, it’s complicated. I’d love to hear about what you’re up to.”
  5. “I’m exploring starting my own business.”
  6. “I’m an entrepreneur thinking about my next adventure but I’m not ready to reveal more yet.”
  7. “After some big life changes, I’m re-evaluating what I want the next chapter to look like. It feels really good to do this soul searching right now even though it’s uncomfortable to sit with the unknown.”

You can see I gave a range from evasive to more revealing options. Go with what feels right to you in the moment. There’s no right or wrong. You’re safer than you think.

I like having meaningful conversations so I go for the open honest answers. Despite my perfectionism, I try to embrace being “messy” out loud. It creates real connections that I value.

Got any tips to share? Or questions to ask? You can comment below or join The Introvert Clubhouse.

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  • Aviva

    I really like the idea that I saw recently in an article of answering this question with something that is not job related. So, “I volunteer with X group” or “I love to rock climb” or “I’ve been knitting a lot lately” or “I donate blood” or something like that, which I think feeds into your suggestion #1, and is likely to end up being a much more interesting question.

    • Great point Aviva! Thank you. I agree it adds more meaning and provides a more natural starting place to building a connection. Work can come later if it’s meant to. It’s about connecting, after all.

  • Rachel

    Val thank you for writing this blog. I am introverted and spend most of my time tongue tied. Also trying to start a coaching business, trying to get myself out there. Speechless is my middle name. Thanks again, this really helps.

  • QTP Job Training

    Good one. Interesting to read