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What Do You Really Do?

When asked the question, “What do you do?” most of us reply by reciting a role we play. When you think about it, if you say, “I’m an accountant,” you haven’t really replied to the inherent action part of the question. The doing part. Most of us see ourselves in roles—mother, barista, graphic designer, farmer—which is really just a set of clothes we wear most of our waking hours. It says nothing of who we are, what we care about, what our talents are, how our work makes us feel, what we think we give to the world.

Off and on for the last year or more, I’ve been evaluating my business and asking myself if I’m following my passions enough, serving the people I really want to serve, and putting things out into the world that are a good representation of my skills and talents and values.

In all the resources I’ve come across, one of the most often cited aspects of this exploration is learning how to say what you do without putting people to sleep. “I’m an accountant,” is a surefire way to put someone to sleep. No offense to accountants.

If that accountant were to say “I make one of the most unpleasant days of the year easy for people and sometimes even pleasant,” he or she would have your attention. Everyone wants an unpleasant day to be easier and even pleasant. They’d be curious to know which day you were talking about. Then they’d be curious enough to ask, “Well, how exactly do you do that?”

Now you’re having a conversation because you’ve captured their attention with a need they can relate to. People want to see themselves in there somewhere.

Even if you were a member of a circus, which sounds infinitely more interesting than what most of us do, you’d still cut your listener off. A role as an answer is a dead end. There’s nowhere go. “I take people out of reality to a magical place,” is the kind of answer that starts a conversation.

Recently, at a party, I met a woman who was a third grade teacher. I liked Pam instantly. I was working through exercises myself to answer that very question, “What do you do?” When I asked her what she did, she answered like most of us do.

“Can I help you reframe that?” I asked. “Here’s what you really do. You help shape young minds to thrive in this world.”

Her face lit up and a smile spread across her face like I’d just planted flowers along her career path. We were in a room full of web-savvy people. If she had said “third grade teacher” to anyone in there, she probably would have received only polite nods.

Just then a young woman walked up and introduced herself. When she asked Pam what she did, Pam stood up straight and threw her shoulders back. She looked at me and whispered with a smile, “I’m going to try it out.”

So, what do you really do?


  1. Thank you for this, Jane. I just started the Artist’s Way course, plus there’s GoodBookery, so this is pretty timely.

    What a tease you are, though. All this thought provoking and no mention of what *you* do.

    PS: Resuscitate the hyperlink to your business by adding a letter n to its href.

    • Thanks for the tip on the link goof!

      I knew someone would ask what I do. I’m crafting that. But in the meantime, I’m bringing delight to people I meet by getting them to say what they really do!
      I started but never finished Artist’s Way. Excellent book.

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