When you’re a human in midst of reinventing yourself, no question produces angst like the cookie cutter: “So, what do you do?”
One day we’ll collectively design a better question. Until then, you and I will continue to fight the good fight, attempting to sum up our zig-zagged lives and convoluted careers in a breezy byline that both pleases and delights.
Or we’ll continue to introduce ourselves however we damn well please.
Either way, we can find solace in the fact that some of the most fascinating people alive today struggle with a punchy one-liner as well.
On his wildly popular podcast, Tim Ferriss asks many of his guests a version of: How do you currently answer the question, “what do you do?”
Here’s a baker’s dozen of my favorite answers.
1. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine, author of The Inevitable
“These days, my stock answer is that I package ideas into books and magazines and websites, and I make ideas interesting and pretty.”
2. Sam Harris, neuroscience Ph.D. and author
“Mostly a writer. My background is in neuroscience and philosophy, and I still have a toe in the water of doing research in neuroscience…
So depending on the context, I’m a scientist, but mostly I think of myself as a writer. My interest in neuroscience has always been, from the get-go, was always philosophical and always purposed toward writing and thinking about the human mind.”
3. Alain de Botton, philosopher, author, founder of School of Life
“Well, the easiest thing to say is I’m a writer. But that doesn’t really cover it because writers come in all shapes and sizes.
If the conversation is allowed to go on a little longer, what I tend to tell this is I’m interested in emotional intelligence, in emotional health. It’s a kind of topic that broadly pertains to all the things that make life difficult, that are coming from the emotional centers of our brain and functioning.”
4. Maria Popova, founder & writer at Brainpickings.org
“Well, I’ve answered it differently over the years in part because, I think, inhabiting our own identity is a perpetual process that, right now, I would say, I read and I write, in that order. And in between, I do some thinking. And I think about, how to live a meaningful life, basically.”
5. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn
“Well there’s the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is I’m an entrepreneur and investor — that’s when I want to be really quick and move through the answer.
The long answer is I essentially build, design and improve human eco-systems through software, either as a creator or as an investor and partner. What that means is everything from…Paypal to LinkedIn to Airbnb, each of these things are ways you craft how people find each other, how they interact with each other, how they establish their identity, and how they make progress in their lives.”
6. Paul Levesque (Triple H), pro wrestler & VP at WWE
“It’s funny now because I’m kind of in this weird kind of combo twilight zone of the last bits of my in-ring wrestling career. Even when I did it then, I used to say I was an entertainer. Because people — the WWE’s a weird thing….If you not into it, no explanation can explain it to you to make you like it. And if you are into it, there’s no explanation necessary. It just is what it is. And so to sometimes say, ‘Oh, WWE,’ they would go like, ‘Oh…the wrestling?’ And it just had a weird connotation to it. When you say, ‘Entertainer,’ ‘Oh, what kind?’ ‘Oh, WWE.’ It just took on a different meaning to people that don’t understand what we do. So I always went with that.
Right now, it’s kind of a combo. We have a saying that we use at WWE, which is, ‘Our job is to put smiles on people’s faces.’ And it’s kind of the overall thing of what we do. But I spend 90 percent of my day as an executive.”
7. Will MacAskill, associate professor & co-founder of non-profit 80,000 hours
“Depending on whether I want to be lowkey or not, I’ll tell them I’m associate professor of philosophy at Oxford university. But I’m also one of the co-founders of the effective altruism movement — a community of people dedicated to using their time and money as effectively as possible to making the world a better place.”
8. Brené Brown, research professor, author, power TED speaker
“I actually have two answers. One if I want to keep talking, one if I don’t.
If I don’t want to keep talking I’ll usually just say I’m a shame researcher, and usually that scares people. If I’m in a normal conversation I’ll say that I study vulnerability and courage, shame and worthiness.”
9. Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList
“[I answer that question] Very poorly. At heart I’m an entrepreneur. Any day in which I solve the same problem twice in a row, I’m pretty unhappy. So by definition I like to do something different everyday.
The idea that we repeat ourselves, and we specialize and we pigeon hole ourselves is a modern invention, created through specialization of labor and the Industrial Revolution. And hopefully as more and more people move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re going to be able to define ourselves much more loosely.
So that’s a good way of dodging your question, now let me actually answer it: My day job is I am co-founder and CEO of AngelList…the reality of what I do on a day-to-day basis is just completely different.”
10. Jessica Richman, co-founder and CEO of uBiome
“When I go to conferences people ask me that question, I have to back up a bit and start talking about bacteria. Then either people get this really horrified look on their face or they get this very excited look on their face. Most people are not neutral about bacteria. I say, “I run a company that — where we sequence the microbiome. Those are the trillions of bacteria that live on and in our bodies.” Then I pause and wait for the look of horror or excitement to cross over their face to see how much more I should tell them about that.”
11. Derek Sivers, entrepreneur, author & trickster
“Lately when someone asks what I do, I tend to say something like “I don’t know!” or “You know, I’ve never thought about it before.” And that just derails the whole routine of a boring conversation, right? It lets them know we’re not just painting by numbers now.”
12. Michael McCullough, co-founder of QuestBridge and ER physician
“I create and I help people create things. I’m an entrepreneur and investor as well, but I’m an ER physician by training.”
13. Debbie Millman, influential designer & host of Design Matters
“That’s a tough question…Now I say that I’m a designer. And sometimes if I’m feeling wordy I’ll say that I’m a designer and a writer and a podcaster. And sometimes people look at me like, ‘huh?’.
I found when I was working at Sterling Brands…I resolved to just saying when I was filling out what I did on passport applications and things like that, I used to say ‘executive.’ And that made sense.
For a long time on Twitter I had ‘Debbie Millman is a girl’ until enough people said ‘Debbie, you really gotta change that,’ and then I did.”
(Bonus via Copy Blogger) 14. Seth Godin, author & entrepreneur
“I notice things, name them, and sometimes provoke people to make a ruckus.”
Who did I miss? Share in the comments below.