Reader question: how to respond to ‘what do you do’?

A scanner called Mery asks: “I’m wondering how you introduce yourself to others when they ask what you do? I usually stumble through something about taking care of my little gal first and foremost and then doing virtual assisting work from home (I really need to tighten up my elevator pitch 🙂 ), but in my mind I’m running through all of the different things I do. Wondering how other scanners handle this conversation piece?”.

This is such a great question, and one I struggled with for years (double digit number of years) even when I was an employee and had a job title. The job title was vague enough that people still wondered what I actually did and then my absolute deluge of scanner interests would come rushing into my brain and I would awkwardly say things like ‘oh, you know, I do do projects, in topics like water, and um.. waste, but you know, I work on community engagement and social research, and deliberative democracy.. I like, um, systems stuff.’ Truly I think I gave the impression that I was just random walking past who had nothing to do with the mingling event at hand and was just regurgitating random words from the brochure.

You see it wasn’t that I didn’t know what I did, it’s just that I could see all my projects and their topics, and the various processes and fields that they spanned, as if they were there in three dimensions around me, and I couldn’t find a way to condense or simplify all that for a quick and easy few sentence answer. I knew in advance I would probably end up boring or confusing the person listening and still feel unsatisfied because I had been inaccurate or glossed over whole sections of my work. I sometimes longed to say ‘oh I’m an engineer I design bridges’, or ‘I’m a baker and I mostly bake cakes and pastries’ or ‘I work in HR and design all the training for our new staff’. Something that people might be able too visualise or understand and that I could say between mouthfuls of egg sandwich.

These days running my own business I am a bit clearer on the strands of my work, even though as a scanner its true that they evolve and change. Right now I can cheerfully tell you that I have 4 different connected threads running through my business: art therapy, coaching, art and consulting. These are 4 different businesses operating under the one roof if you like. Within that there are a squillion projects and beyond that are all my other scanner passions and side projects (although most of my side projects now fall under the banner of my business because I’ve build my business around the things I love to do).

But if you were to say ‘what do you do?” to me now, I would probably say ‘I run my own business, and I help people go after their dreams, live more creative lives, and use art for healing.’ I would probably add something concrete like ‘right now I’m working with (organisations X and Y) and also seeing my own clients’. If the conversation continued I might say ‘sometimes I help organisations as well’. (Well. That’s what I’d like to say. You still might catch me mid egg sandwich and find I mumble something about art and then switch topics to something else.)

So in your situation, you might like to just practice a short answer that covers the main things you want them to know. You could say ‘I have two main areas of work – I’m a mom of a 3 year old, and I also work with business owners as a virtual assistant. That suits me for now but in the future I hope to also give time to all my other passion projects and hobbies’. If they are interested they’ll ask you. You’ve hinted that you have lots more to say, let them choose where to go next.

If your day job is boring you to tears and you don’t even want to tell them about it, feel free to just share one other thing you’re doing right now. No one said you have to answer based on the MAIN thing you spend your time on. It’s perfectly Ok to share the thing that is most interesting to you right now. I sometimes say: “at the moment I’m focused on..” Or “I’m juggling a few projects at the moment, one that’s big for me this week is Y” or “I work as an X but what I’m really excited about this year is Y”. Here are some examples of how you could focus more on giving a glimpse of one key project within your business, or highlighting the ‘other’ projects if that’s what you’re excited to share:

I spend most of my time working as a parent and virtual assistant but what I’m really excited about this year is researching different college courses.. I’m planning to study in the health field down the track (flag an up coming thing)

One of the things I do is work as a virtual assistant and this year I’m trying to find some local businesses to work with because a lot of my existing clients are overseas and I realise I miss the face to face (talk about one project within your business)

I work as a virtual assistant and I’m a mum, I also really love anything to do with gardening! (kept it brief but flag all your main areas of interest)

I work as a virtual assistant and I’m a mum, and on top of that I just super love learning. I am always reading and attending courses, I can’t get enough of it! (kept it brief but flag all your main areas of interest)

I juggle a few different things: parenting, working on my own business, studying, and a whole bunch of writing and craft projects (as above, kept it brief but flag all your main areas of interest)

I am a real organiser, so I love anything to do with getting people organised and working more efficiently. At the moment I’m raising my daughter and also helping business owners with their marketing and communications. (focus more on your favourite skills and who you are as a person, what makes you tick, let them know that the way you use those skills changes all the time)

Oh! So many things! I’m someone who always has lots of projects on the go. Let me see, what’s big this month? At the moment I’m taking on new clients for my virtual-assistant business, I’m helping at my daughter’s school with the new school play they’re putting on, and I’m cataloguing seed for our local seed swappers library. How about you? What are you working on? (the detailed snapshot of a moment in time – this can often tell more than generalities anyway)

So in conclusion…

Remember, this exchange is NOT a job application or CV, so you don’t have to convince them of anything. It’s also not a tax return, or college application that needs to be complete and include an accurate summary of all your activities. The answer to this question DOES NOT need to list everything you do, convince them you’re good at your job, be focused only on income earning work, or leave them knowing every little thing about you.

It IS an introduction, a glimpse, a handshake, an aroma. It’s a step forward in a conversation, not the whole conversation. It’s a tiny gift from you to them of showing yourself. You get to decide what you want to show, what feels right to show, what will be safe to show and still leave you able to chat. What you choose to share today with this person might be a different glimpse to what you choose to share next week to someone else. It’s just the tip of an iceberg.

But as a scanner, rather than one fixed and static iceberg you have a whole Antarctica full of them. In answering this question you get to choose which icebergs to reveal, which ones to keep under water. You might share the tips of a few of them, or talk about one whole iceberg in detail. You might just describe the landscape as full of icebergs, and not describe any in detail. All up to you. You get to decide.

3 thoughts on “Reader question: how to respond to ‘what do you do’?”

  1. Thank you so much for your very valuable response to my question, Jade! I will definitely keep your tips in mind next time someone asks me “So, what do you do?”

  2. Jade. A wonderful post! One of your best. The scanner description of your mental answer to a mundane questions sez it all for me:
    “it wasn’t that I didn’t know what I did, it’s just that I could see all my projects and their topics, and the various processes and fields that they spanned, as if they were there in three dimensions around me”

    As my scanner life becomes more productive and correspondently reclusive, as well as trust levels of other humans diminished through experience… I learned to answer more protectively (scanners too easily share our gifts with the wrong people), “Why do you ask?”

  3. Excellent post! This is really a topic that frightens me as I can never give a whole (or even remotely accurate) picture of what I do “between two mouthfuls of egg sandwich”. It’s frustrating! Then people go away thinking of me as a housewife (who actually does nothing despite being busy 15 hours a day) or a tango teacher or a digital marketing specialist or a finance person or a reflexologist. But I am none of that alone! At the same time, I also don’t want to share too much, either – I think in most people’s heads such combinations of fields of work are impossible. Thank you! You list so many hands-on ideas how to deal with such concerns! Can’t wait to try them out in practice 🙂

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