“What do you do?” vs “Who are you?”

"To be a poet is a condition, not a profession." - Robert Frost

6 min. read

What’s the first question you ask someone you meet at a dinner party? “Can you point me in the direction of the hummus platter?” Okay, but the second question? “What do you _mean _they don’t have a hummus platter?!” You’re clearly hungry. You should eat. Eventually, and usually initially, you’ll ask the invariable first question:

“What do you do?”

Most of us (myself included) would say who you are matters more than what you do, but most of us (myself included) will still easily fall into acting the other way. It’s kind of like that Jim Gaffigan joke about Catholicism: “Don’t eat meat on Fridays! …unless you forget.”

I get asked this question a lot, and I assume you do as well. On busses, planes, trains, in the rain, in a house by a mouse… it’s a common question to answer. For me, though, every time I get the choice of how to answer, because oh the things I do. And it’s in answering this question again and again that I’ve seen how much what you do matters more than who you are.

What do I do?

Here’s a smattering of the ways I’ve responded to the “What do you do?” question, and my best guess at the reactions of the specific people I gave these responses to. Each one is just as true as the next (I do all of them professionally), and as untrue (answering with just one thing in inherently dishonest, but it’s also easier).

I do social justice work.

1 “Huh?” [2] “Oh, so what are you the ‘PC’ Police?” (actual quote) [3] “I guess I better watch what I say around you.”

I’m a comedian.

“Tell me a joke!”

This is the response almost every time, and the answer — and I think I’m speaking for all comedians — is no. Please think about how absurd that request is. Go ahead and come up with your own analogies (I’ll help: surgeon, lawyer, clown — oh wait, that last one and what you think I am isn’t really a comparison of unlike things). Now let’s move on, please.

“Naw, c’mon! Tell me a joke. It’ll be fun. You’re funny, right?”

We’re fighting now.

I code websites.

“Oh, interesting, but I just noticed this really interesting floral pattern on the wall over there. So I’m going to go look at it. Right now. Over there.”

I’m a graphic designer.

My friend’s mom’s cousin’s priest’s last confessional booth attendee told him he needed a logo designed, but confessed he doesn’t have any money to spend on it. Will you do it for free?

I’m an author.

1 “Is your work published?” (generally asked in the most pessimistic, condescending way, as if to simultaneously ask a question, answer it, and judge you)

[2] I’m writing a book, too, and now you’re going to listen to me talk about the book I probably haven’t actually started and will never write. Don’t worry — it’s awesome.

[3] Cool! You’re all of a sudden very interesting and mysterious and I’m going to grant everything you say more weight than I will that “comedian” jerk over there who wouldn’t even tell me a joke.

I’m an author, on the internet.

“Oh, interesting, but I just someone noticing this really interesting floral pattern on the wall over there. So I’m going to go look at it with them. Right now. Over there.”

I do research and education on identity, gender, and sexuality.

“Wow! That’s so needed. The world needs that. You’re needed.”

I run a non-profit.

“Oh, cool! What’s it called? What problem are you trying to solve?”

It’s called Gamers Against Bigotry.

“Don’t you think there are more pressing problems in the world? There’s a guy over there who’s doing research and education on identity, gender, and sexuality. Maybe he could use your help.”

I’m a professional speaker.

1 “I could never do that. How can you do that? That’s so cool!” [2] “I could totally do that, but what I do is better. You’re beneath me.”

I’m a photographer.

My sister-in-law is a photographer and now I’m going to tell you everything about my sister-in-law. Don’t worry — she’s awesome.

And the list goes on.

Sometimes I’ll be more vague (activist, advocate, or performer), other times I’ll be overwhelmingly specific (here’s my CV), because it’s fun to see how different responses will dictate what happens next. I’ve gotten to the point where after asking someone what they do and hearing a bit about them, I can cater my response to make them immediately love me or be 100% indifferent toward me, and all without uttering a single lie. But all of this is nonsense, because what I do doesn’t matter nearly as much as…

Who Am I?

I’m Sam. Sam I am. I’m a gelatinous blob of matter, mostly oxygen (and a disproportionate amount of whatever elements comprise chickpeas). I’m all those thing above and none of those things. And each one of them tells you as little about me as it tells you about me. I’m a walking paradox, an internal contradiction. I’m forever changing. I’m a human person.

When we ask “What do you do?” we think we’re asking “Who are you?” but the one rarely gets to the other. If we wanted to know who someone was, we’d have to ask them thousands of questions (many of which they might not know the answer to themselves), and “What do you do?” may never play into the equation. But “What do you do?” is a silver bullet question for getting at “Who does society think you are?” — or, more aptly: “How good are you? How much status do you have? How much are you worth?”

You don’t likely want to think about this, but we tend to value people more who society tells us to value more. From the bottom of the totem pole (when was the last time you asked a homeless/jobless person to tell you about their homelessness/joblessness) to the top (bet you’d buy Barry Obama a drink and coerce him to tell you about his job if you ended up sitting at the bar beside him).

I don’t like that. I want to do that less. I want to start valuing people for who they are, not what they do. And I want to stop valuing or devaluing myself for the same reasons. So I’m going to.

If this is something that’s up your alley, watch this fascinating TED talk by Alain de Botton where he talks about a lot of this (I love when I happen upon a video that relates to something that’s been rattling around in my mind), but also so much more, wraps it up with a bow, and does it in a wonderful accident. And let me know what you think about all of this in the comments below, person!