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sarah dale

A new way to answer “What do you do?” when you do all the things

This article is for people who hate answering the question, What do you do? In my experience, most people hate this question and yet there are particular groups of people who really, really don’t like it.

It’s a question I hate fielding because it’s hard to explain what I “do” in a short elevator pitch (see confusing photo above, that’s me). I don’t work for one company or have one job title which explains how I use my time in a clear, concise way like, I’m a second grade teacher. That’s pretty easy for anyone to wrap their head around.

This common, over-used and abused question is often coming from someone who doesn’t know me. This person has perhaps just met me for the first time and has no idea what to say or talk about so they ask the first thing that comes to mind: What do you do?. Ugh.

I’ve especially struggled with this question since striking out on my own (read: leaving “conventional jobs” for good) and finding my way as a self-employed free agent, whose schedule is entirely her own (I don’t even have kids dictating any part of my schedule, just a furry dog-child, so I really am quite free to do something different every day).

A few weeks ago I was explaining how I struggle with this question to a friend of mine while at a gathering at a local brewery. It was top of mind for me because I almost didn’t go to the event (a get together for her husband’s birthday) because I have general anxiety about meeting new people these days. One of the biggest reasons I get anxious before these situations is because I hate the dreaded question and I know it’s going to come up. I feel awkward about the situation because I don’t know how to explain myself which causes other people to feel awkward and who wants to go through all that?

I was explaining to my friend how I’ve tried a number of answers to the dreaded question, ranging from… “Well it really depends on the day” to “I’m an artist? Well, most of what I do falls under that title, I guess?” (as if I’m asking them?).

I knew she would understand my lament because she is also a woman of many talents, who is not tied to one particular “job” with a title on a business card. So without thinking about it I asked her, “How do you answer that question? What would you say?”

I’m not sure if she thought I was asking her how she would answer the question on my behalf or that’s just how she decided to answer, but the response that followed completely changed my perspective on this question.

She answered, “Oh well, when I tell my other friends about you, I tell them… My friend Sarah is a veteran spouse and she helps a lot of other caregivers and veteran wives like herself. She’s done some cool art projects and is also a filmmaker and is now launching this new business, called New Rosie… All geared toward helping her community. And her husband works for this nonprofit where they lead combat trauma recovery courses, so they’re both working in that space together, which is also really cool.”

I was floored. I had never sounded so amazing in my life!

The person she was describing was incredible, and I would love to be her. And that’s the thing — I am her.

I told my friend how flattered I was at her explanation. She plainly told me she says those things because they’re true and she’s right, they are true. The way she described me is an accurate description. Over the weekend as I thought more about it, I realized the differences between her explanation and mine.

When people ask me what I “do” I answer their exact question — I describe the things I do with my time. But no one had asked her that. She was perhaps telling someone about hanging out with me and then proceeded to describe to them how she knows me and a little more about who I am.

Learning more about who people are, is way more interesting that what they do.

It also occurred to me she described why I do what I do, instead of focusing on the literal things I do all day — something I hadn’t thought to mention.

Another friend of mine sent me Simon Sinek’s TED Talk a few months ago. It resonated with me so much I’ve listened to it twice now (and this is coming from a person who hardly makes time for such things). In his talk he explains how people don’t buy our products or support our causes because of what we do. People don’t buy our what — they buy our why.

He gives the example of the company Apple (and I suggest you watch the talk because I’m simply paraphrasing from memory here). Apple doesn’t tell us they make fast, reliable, expensive computers, even though it’s true. Who would want to buy them?

Instead, they tell us they stand for being the best in design and innovation, so they work diligently to marry those two together, and by the way they happen to make computers. That’s entirely different than a reliable, expensive computer. That’s because we want to buy the why.

Simon draws three circles like the configuration of a bullseye with why in the center, then how in the next ring and what in the outer ring. Apple’s why is being the best in design and innovation; their how is diligently working to find ways to put those together; and their what is computers (which led to music players, then phones and who knows what they will come up with next).

When I start listing all the things I do all day, I am bored with it and so is my listener. I start with “I’m an artist?” and they continue with “oh what kind of art do you do?” I continue being coy and secretive saying things like, “Well all kinds…ya know…depends on the day…” (No, actually they don’t know because I haven’t told them anything and now they’re starting to get bored or think I’m weird because I am being both boring and weird).

But what if instead, the conversation went something like this…

Well-intentioned, probably nice person: “So what do you do, Sarah?”

Me: “My husband is a disabled veteran and we suffered for ten years before we found out we weren’t alone in our post-war struggles and that there are people and resources out there that could actually help us. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like we did so I help veteran caregivers like myself connect and find out in fact they aren’t alone in their struggles.” (read: why)

Nice person: “Wow, that’s amazing. So are you like, umm, a counselor?”

(They are guessing at the what because they don’t know what forms my why takes.)

Me: “I’m an artist so I gravitate toward using art to help people connect. Art has a way of reaching and connecting people despite differences or struggles or how hard it is to talk about something. Art can transcend our boundaries and walls we might put up, which can be very impactful.” (read: how)

Person: “Art? Cool. So like what kind of art?”

Me: “I have a variety of art and film projects I’ve created. For example I have an ongoing Instagram project called When War Comes Home where I repost snapshots of post-war struggle I find on Instagram. Caregivers and spouses chime in with comments about how they understand, or ask questions and get help for a similar situation. I have some film projects I’d love to produce this year but for now they’re on hold while I get this new business I’m launching off the ground — it’s called New Rosie. No longer are we a generation of Rosie the Riveters, we’re now Rosie the Caregivers, or what I call the New Rosie. I’m designing products specifically for caregivers with the mission of uplifting and uniting the 5.5 million caregivers across the country.” (Read: what)

Isn’t that WAAAAY more interesting than “Oh, uh, well, depends on the day, ya know…”???

In full disclosure, I haven’t tried this yet with a real, live person. I’ve built this imaginary conversation based on the hundred or so times I’ve tested a variety of answers in this kind of situation. So I can’t tell you all the amazing things that happened after this (And then they wrote me a $100,000 check to fund my documentary!!! #GOALS).

However, I can tell you I’m already feeling much more confident about myself and my work simply for going through the exercise of writing this down. I think that’s because this exercise is a process of owning my truth by putting it into words.

Glennon Doyle Melton, author of Love Warrior and founder of Momastery.com recently shared on her Facebook page that most of us walk around feeling so incredibly heavy because we’re carrying around our truth instead of letting it out.

I can speak from firsthand experience as someone who struggled through ten years of post-war hell — not speaking your truth and instead stuffing it inside takes a toll on you.

When you let it out by speaking your truth and owning, it truly changes your life. You’ll be amazed to find out how heavy your load was once you lighten it.

This new approach to answering the dreaded “What do you do question” might not be for everyone, but for people like me who have their hands in many projects, it’s a game changer. I hope it’s helpful for you too.

Give it a try. The next time someone asks you, What do you do?, answer with why you do what you do and see where it leads you.

Let me know how it goes! Like Glennon often says, living our truths is really, really hard work so let’s encourage each other along the way. We need all the help we can get.

This article was originally published February 10, 2017 on Medium.

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