What do you do?

“What do you do?” is the most ubiquitous of small-talk questions, and the expected answer is always that of a job: “I’m in sales” or “I’m a teacher” or so on. A person’s work is so often seen as their identity entire, and this attitude can be internalised so much that if a person finds themselves out of work for whatever reason, they can feel like they have lost a part of themselves.

At the moment, I don’t have an answer to that question. I left a job where I was very unhappy, and am currently taking some time off, to enjoy my life, and to figure out what that life looks like. This has elicited all manner of responses from people, ranging from approval, “you’re so brave, I wish I could do that” to a confused look or a pitying “oh…right”.

But should we define ourselves by work this way? Sure, we all need to work (and I fully intend on getting another job soon), and our work takes up a large part of each day, but it isn’t who we are, not exclusively.

For instance, I am (in no particular order) a husband, a gardener, a keen cook, a Druid-in-training, a Pagan, a writer, a fumbling learner guitarist, the household servant of two demanding gerbils, an utter geek, etc., etc.

Asking “what do you do?” forces us to define ourselves by one aspect of our lives, an aspect we sometimes have little choice over and may not particularly enjoy. “Hi, I’m Tim and I’m a marketer” tells us nothing about Tim’s life, interests, worldview, hobbies, loves, hates, anything about who he is outside of the 9-5 capitalist system he works within.

One of my favourite 20th century existentialist science-fiction horror writers (yep, I have more than one of those), H.P. Lovecraft, once wrote:

“What a man does for pay is of little significance. What he is, as a sensitive instrument responsive to the world’s beauty, is everything!”

Wouldn’t the world be more interesting if people asked “what do you enjoy doing?” or “what are you into?” rather than “what do you do?”

This post has very little to do with Druidry, I know, but the Bardic tradition that is such a key part of the Druid path is all about creativity and expressing our true self in a world that often tries to deny or hide that.

I like the idea of answering the “what do you do?” question with your favourite hobby, or your main interest, or even your spiritual path: “I’m a surfer” or “I brew my own beer” or “I climb mountains” or even “I’m a Druid”. Doesn’t that sound better?

John Lennon may not have actually said this, but it's a good statement all the same. Image from Walljez.

John Lennon may not have actually said this, but it’s a good statement all the same. Image from Walljez.

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2 Responses to What do you do?

  1. EGS says:

    Yes! I get so tired of being defined by a 9-5. It always made me feel bad when I worked jobs I wasn’t proud of. Answering the “what do you do” question with “I am a writer” or “artist” doesn’t seem to illicit a positive response either. People still look at you with pity, because in their mind those are not “real jobs.” It’s their loss really. My mind is open, and so is my world.

  2. It’s such an annoying and limited/limiting question, to be sure. Very indicative of the culture’s priorities, though maybe that’s beginning to shift a bit. I’ve occasionally played with different polite but unusual approaches to answering this question, which creates interesting responses, too. Thanks for the musing … J

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