‘WHAT DO YOU DO?’ and 4 reasons why I hate this question

‘If you organise your life around your passion, you can turn your passion into your story and then turn your story into something bigger – something that matters.’ – Blake Mycoskie

Quotes like this decorate our lives, our timelines, our billboards, our adverts, our minds. It’s encouraged – even romanticised sometimes – that we follow our wild dreams, chasing them down until we catch up and grasp them. Yet, when it comes down to it, when we pass by people, our hair blowing in the wind, hunger in our eyes, so close to our dreams, our friends look at us – and laugh. Poke fun. Point their fingers. Frown.

‘You’re wasting your time’
‘When are you going to get a real job?’
‘What if’
‘What if’
‘What if’

What if it works, may I ask? What if I reach the ripe old age of 100 and look back on my life and smile? What if, whether my dream explodes or unravels or blooms, I don’t regret chasing it at all because it’s what I felt called to all my life? What if maybe, just maybe, you’re wrong?

Right now, I’m in a strange in-between margin in my life, stuck between a strong calling towards my dream and a strong voice in my head telling me ‘beth, you’re stupid’. Here I am, writing a novel, running an Etsy shop and funding it with part-time work market research work which fits nicely into my flexible schedule. I am so happy. I’m excited to wake up each morning. I love the work I’ve chosen. But I’m not making a living. I’m just making – what I hope is – a future. And that’s not always visible right away. So to the untrained, un-involved eye, I can look like an idiot. I can look selfish. I can look crazy, silly, wasteful. Hence the quoted questions above.


So when people ask me, a smile on their face, sparkle in their eye, ‘what do you do?’, a little knot ties itself tight in my stomach, my chest squeezes together, words stutter on my tongue. Because not every time I open my mouth and admit the truth, do I receive the reaction I might if I said ‘i’m a nurse‘ or ‘i’m a journalist‘ or ‘i’m an optician‘. Instead, I have to prepare myself for a thousand different reactions.

On that note, here are the reasons why I hate the question ‘what do you do’?

  1. It defines our identity.

I’ve noticed, as have a lot of people I’ve had conversations with about this recently, that people have a visible reaction when you tell them what they do. Subconscious or not, we ask people what they do so that we can analyse them, figure out what kind of person they are and whether conversing with them is worth our sacred time.

I know that when I ask a stranger what they do, it can determine the rest of our conversation about work. If someone says to me that they work in a shop or as an editor or a trauma surgeon, I can continue the conversation, figure out what they like and dislike about their job. If they tell me they are a software engineer or a plumber or an accountant, I can’t relate. I don’t know what I can ask them about these occupations. I don’t know how to be passionate or encouraging towards their career.

However, I would not halt the conversation and walk away. Because I know, from experience, that our state of employment does not scream who we are.


People are so keen to ask ‘what do you do’ first and foremost. It’s an avenue into your personality, so it seems. Well, I beg to differ. because if I were doing something entirely to do with my personality, I wouldn’t be doing market research. My husband would be a climbing instructor. My friend would be a poet, a secret agent, an activist. But we’re not. Because we don’t always have these opportunities open to us.

Instead of asking ‘what do you do?’ right away, why don’t you ask ‘what do you like to do?’

Yes, a little more awkward, a little less natural but a whole lot more revealing. A lot kinder too, giving someone an opportunity to expose their true self to you. They will tell you about their true unfiltered raw passions: they love reading, they build model airplanes, they cycle every Sunday morning, they have 3 kids, they travel abroad twice a year. These are the avenues into their personality. This is what defines them.

2. Judgement

It does seem that if you’re not doing a job someone else approves of, it can be easily noticed.

I’m writing a book, a full-length novel, and I’m not getting paid for any of it. Maybe one day someone will buy my book and publish it. Maybe it’ll get made into a movie. Maybe I’ll get a multi-million dollar book deal. And then I can promise you that those who never supported me will pretend like they always did.

But here’s the truth: I might not get my book published. It’ll probably not get made into a movie. And even more far-fetched, I will most likely not get a 7 digit book deal. I might never have the chance to let eyes beyond my immediate friends and family see my words. Who knows?

And then, what will they say, other than ‘i told you so’? Not much.

Visible success and financial rewards seem to be the only thing that determines whether someone’s projects are worthwhile. Let me change your mind on that. Writing my book is what I’m meant to be doing. It’s what I studied for 4 years to be able to do. It’s what my husband and I decided as a team that it was time for. It’s what God allows me to do by providing my other circumstances are comfortable so I can write this book.


So it’s not visible success and financial rewards that determine something’s value. It’s happiness. It’s acceptance. It’s personal fulfillment. It’s God’s blessing. It’s your choice. No one else’s.

So next time, when you meet someone who is writing a book, starting a youtube channel, doing another year of education, taking another gap year, traveling the world, don’t let your smile falter. Don’t nod your head and bare your teeth. Stop. And think. Think about what that person is going through; think about the circumstances of theirs you know nothing about; think of their blessings, think of their bravery, think of their decisions and know that their decisions are theirs and that’s what makes them okay.

3. Reaction

pic3Going off the tail end of that last one, the people that didn’t think before they spoke have said things that will stay with me for a long time, maybe even forever. And I dream of the day I get to write the acknowledgments to my book and thank the people that said ‘when will you get a real job?’ and ‘what does your husband think of that?’ and ‘how will you afford this and that?’ and ‘what if?’. I won’t thank you because you motivated me because you didn’t. I left those conversations and went home and looked at full-time jobs on my laptop before my husband had to come into the room and stop me from applying because he knows that won’t make me happy. I want to thank those people because they planted in me a feeling. A feeling of distaste. Distaste to a lifestyle that makes me as bitter and logical and dreamless as that. And that’s what makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing. What I’m meant to be doing. Even if it’s for right now.

4. You don’t know me

You don’t. He doesn’t. She doesn’t. They don’t.

And, somedays, even I don’t.

But I know someone who does.


Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be an author. Among other things such as a zookeeper, a math teacher and a singer. But the author dream was the one that remained. I made up stories and told them to my younger brothers. I wrote my first novel when I was 12. I wrote short stories throughout school and finally, in 2015, I started the novel I’m still working on (and almost done with!).

I know a calling when I know it. Because I’ve had so many things I thought were callings, so many things I tried to make callings, so many things people tried to tell me were callings but being a ‘writer’ is the one thing that I feel on my heart and in my mind. It’s a word, two syllables, six letters that when I hear and I think ‘that’s me‘. Such as other things, like Christian, wife, sister, daughter, friend, reader. These are words that resonate with me, help me understand who I am.

And the only reason I have those words associated with me is because I was created that way. Knit together. Fearfully and wonderfully made. By god.

So if you have a problem with the way I am, speak to him because it isn’t only my decision that I’m a writer. A dreamer. Crazy. Too spontaneous. It’s his, too.


So that’s me. That’s my life. This is my life. I don’t know what it will become and right now, I don’t even know what it is. All I know is that I’m happy, I’m loved, I’m saved. All I know is that despite what you might think, I have a healthy social life. I can afford to take a break. I am buying a house with my husband in a month. I’m doing okay.

And despite all those people, all these lies, it’s not all bad. There are the people, and I can picture their faces (lovely, they are) in my mind as I type who have sat across from me and said ‘I think you’re brave’ or ‘I can’t wait to read your book’ or ‘that’s simply amazing’. And I hope that when we talk about their passions, I can reciprocate the same enthusiasm because everyone deserves to feel validated.

And if you don’t, like I do at times, I encourage you to build your identity by yourself, in yourself, in your passions and in the loving father that made you the way you are for a reason.

Keep searching for that reason – I do believe you’ll find it.

song of the day: free to be me

all artwork by henn kim


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