What do you do?

What do you do?

A friend and musical collaborator recently noted, “It’s funny that we don’t talk about music very much when we hang out.” I realized it was true, and actually I kind of like that music isn’t always the focus of conversation. In fact, happy as I am to talk about all things musical, I often make it a point to move conversation away from music when spending time with people in the music world.

In part this is a reaction to the very American question, “So, what do you do?” At least on the East Coast, this is usually the first question asked when meeting new people. It is a “quick and dirty,” though not always accurate or insightful way to define a person. Among communities of artists, the question transforms into, “So what’s going on? What are you working on?” at which point the expectation is often that you will launch into a run down of your latest and/or most interesting and/or impressive activities and/or accomplishments. It’s like being a walking infomercial!

I learned very quickly while living abroad, steeped in a culture that was very much “work to live,” (as opposed to the “live to work” sensibility common in parts of the U.S.) that most people would prefer to talk about pretty much anything other than what they “do,” in the career-oriented sense of the phrase. Rather, the “doing” involved things like what books were being read, thoughts about assorted political situations around the globe, the latest museum exhibits, goings on within the family, or maybe plans for the next weekend getaway. Work was work, and while that was most certainly the main focus of attention while it was happening, once the work was finished, it was time for the really important stuff—life.

As much as I have tried to hang on to this more balanced approach to daily existence, I have definitely slipped back into those old what-are-you-doing ways, and I try to be conscious of that when I am spending time with people from any profession. Although it is totally interesting to know what people are up to within their chosen fields, the more gratifying aspect of time spent with friends and colleagues is learning about the contexts in which the work happens for them; about the personalities and the lives framing those activities.

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4 thoughts on “What do you do?

  1. Troy Ramos

    The work to live concept is something I noticed when living abroad as well. I love the idea of putting work in its place: a part of my life; definitely nowhere near the whole enchilada.

    When I was younger I used to get so tired of the ‘what do you do’ question that I’d sometimes just make things up for the fun of it. Nothing too radical, of course. But I suppose there was a touch of George Costanza in some of my answers.

  2. jhelliott

    what do you do?
    The fact that one is defined by profession–to such a large extent–creates a kind of pressure, and such a way of self-identifying seems to lead to competition and stress. We composers–and artists of all stripes–are in some ways quite different, in that our work involves and pervades our lives in an essential way. The same is true for many highly dedicated professionals. However many of us artists earn more money from work related to our art than the income which comes directly from the work itself. We are in a strange spot, because, when asked “what I do,” I answer that I am an artist. The teaching that I do I see as a direct extension of my work as an artist, and while I am dedicated to it, I would not identify myself as a teacher. And then from the IRS’s point of view…well, I won’t discuss that here!

  3. Alexandra Gardner

    Hi J! You are so right – for many (most?) of us, the work does indeed pervade our lives in an essential way. And we are also all dealing w/ whatever the IRS says about our roles right now too, ack!

    @mclaren – nice! I’ll definitely have to try that sometime.

    @Troy – thanks for commenting! There will be a future post about those made up professions on airplane trips… ;-)


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