October 2, 1997

What Do You Do

The question is no doubt on its way across the room. I was rehearsing the answer on the way over in the car. I run it through my mind all of the time, never satisfied with the result. It is now here in front of me. I am meeting someone for the first time. We get through the names, the places of residence, and the whether you know so and so from there, and then, oh, there it is, “What do you do?” I wince.

This question always feels like an attack to me, because I know that he will not like my answer. Unless I lie. Sometimes I do that. I ignore the obvious marketing opportunity that all of the books on marketing trumpet and I lie. “I am retired.” He will then say “Oh, but you’re too young to be retired.” I nod and laugh and he nods and laughs. We both are feeling uncomfortable, but he will not be able to stand it for very long. He quickly asks, “What did you use to do?” “I was an attorney.” That makes him happy. We are now back on familiar ground and I am a safe person again. He has put me in a box and he can now tell lawyer jokes or ask if I know attorney so and so. I am part of the real world as he knows it.

Most of the time I tell the truth. But the description changes. I use to say, “I am a life coach,” but that did not move the conversation forward. An unknowing, empty pause would gape at both of us. The other person would be speechless because what he heard did not fit into any box that he knew. I would try to help him by quickly adding, “I coach people around life and career renewal and planning.” This would usually get a knowing nod, since my partner in this strange conversation does not want to look stupid twice. But he would then try to turn my response into something more acceptable. “So, you do career counseling.” “No, not really, it is different than that.” I just repeat myself, “I work around career and life issues.” I will then get a big “Oh” of acknowledgment. I am never sure if he does understand, or if he is just happy to change the conversation to another subject. I suspect the latter. I knew it would have been better if I had lied.

I place no blame on my unsuspecting, curious partner in this. He is only trying to do what he has been taught to do in this culture. He is trying to find some common ground for us and work is the thing. Work is the central issue for most people in our culture. Work certainly takes up the most time. A good argument can be made that it should not be the central issue, but that is a topic for another day.

A friend of mine deals with the question in a different way. When he is asked,”What do you do?” he replies with the question, “Do you mean what do I do to make money?” He refuses to be defined simply by his work. He knows that his life is much more than his chosen occupation.

I would like to be able to give a better answer to the question “What do you do?” but I do not have a better one yet. I have tried, “I help people through life transitions,” but that does not work any better. I am thinking about trying, “I help people find purpose and meaning in their lives,” but I have the feeling that this one will also miss the mark. Maybe I could devise a Top Ten List for Reasons to Use a Coach. Every thing on the list would say the same thing in a different way in the hope that one thing on the list would speak to the listener. The truth is that people are either going to get it or not get it. If they do not understand what I am talking about, then they probably are not yet ready for a coach.

Do you really want to know what I do? It has already been said well by David K. Reynolds in his book, A Thousand Waves. David teaches a system called constructive living and writes,


“What do you do?” he asked.
“I listen; I teach,” was the reply.
“You listen? What kind of work is that?”
“Just listening.”
“People pay you to listen?”
“Don’t you think listening is worth something?”
“Well, I never thought of it that way...”
“That is what I do. I listen; I teach. Just now.”
“Just now?”
“Oh, I see.”
“Thank you.”
“You are an unusual person.”
“Thank you.”

We need to change the question. When a Navajo meets another Navajo for the first time, he asks, “Who are you?” Now that is a powerful question. It would allow the responder to bring his essence into the meeting. Each person would learn what the other holds as important or sacred in his life. Would that not be a better foundation for a relationship?

I know that the question is not going to change. The best that I can hope for is to develop an answer that will explain that part of me called “work” and which will keep alive the possibility for developing a relationship. It has to become user friendly. My answer is not about getting new clients, being right or receiving approval. My answer is about encouraging relationship, friendship and community, the very essence of living in the world.

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