The One Question That EVERYONE Answers Wrong

There is one special question that is asked at 99% of all professional, personal, and social events. Regardless of whether we are at a corporate networking event, a July 4th backdoor barbecue, or a blind dinner date, it will probably pop up. It has become the de facto standard of conversation starters. In fact, if there were a book on 100 Small Talk Conversation Starters it would be listed 3rd, right behind Introduce Yourself and The Weather.  

Yet most people simply get it wrong. We get asked this question so often that we default to a fabricated response. The true meanings and intention behind each word is lost to a pre-formatted practice. We never take the time to honestly look within and understand the implications our words.


What is this mysteriously powerful question?


“What do you do?”


As if we are socially engineered to, most people would immediately reply with their occupation. A Nurse, an Account Manager, a Cashier. Go to any networking event and within 1-minute be prepared to either talk about, or listen to someone talk about, a job. It is what we have been conditioned to do. We need to unravel the question – its assumption, meaning, and implications – to change our response from one of practice to one of purpose.


We need to analyze the question and find out what it is REALLY asking.


A majority of peoples lives are focused intensely on work. Simply put, their life is work. When asked, “What do you do?” they can only respond with an occupation, because that is honestly all they do. From 9-5 they are busy at work and from 5-9 they are busy thinking about work. They never even take a mental break from work to fully appreciate the other aspects. They are defined solely by their occupation, and in turn everything that they wish to do depends on work.


That dream to live for a year in Thailand quickly becomes a childhood fantasy. Kids recitals and games are missed because of meetings or upcoming reports. Gym going and healthy living takes a backseat because of the mental fatigue caused by work.


But what would happen if your occupation weren’t at the centerpiece of your life? What if you lived a life beyond the drywall of your office cubicle, experienced something besides the evening commute? It may seem far-fetched, but is very easily had with only one slight shift in perspective.


Realize every day for the 24 hours it is.

It may seem commonsense, but commonsense is not that common. When we dig a little deeper, we notice that many times we sell away our entire Monday - Friday for the experience of the weekend. We LIVE FOR the weekend. Our entire perspective of the week is centered on where we are in relation to the weekend.

On Monday we talk about what we did over the weekend. On Wednesday we find solace in the fact that we are halfway to the weekend.  On Friday we can't do anything besides talk about what we are going to do as soon as we clock out for the weekend.

And it's because we do the things that we most enjoy during the weekend.


Thus, most people don't really experience the full 24 hours of each days; they are too busy vicariously living through the weekend. It is this fault that makes people say, "I don't have enough time". Even if we assume that the average worker devotes 10 hours a day (factoring in an ultra-commute for good measure) to work, we are still left with 14 hours. Give 8 for the full nights rest that most people don’t get, and we are STILL left with a minimum of 6 hours Every. Single. Day. (EXCLUDING weekends). If you don’t think 6 hours is a long time, try sitting next to a crying baby on a plane from NYC to LA Every. Single. Day.


From a very young age we have been conditioned to give this sort of response. In primary and secondary school, we would reply with our grade level or year. This subconsciously reinforced ourselves – our purpose – as students. This behavior even extends into higher education. Students in university are much more likely to state their year and major. While this offers a peaks at personal interests, it ultimately steers towards career aspirations. All while completely disregarding the fact that they are in the classroom for less than 20 of the 168 hours in a week!


Ironically, most people work so that they don’t have to. Give a good 40 years and keep the last 4. We may not particularly care for our work or the purpose it serves in the greater scheme of things, but we have bills to pay. We aren’t yet financially independent, and although work is “passable” and some may even highly enjoy it, it would not be our first choice activity on a free Saturday afternoon. We wouldn’t do it for free. We do it so that we can afford to do the things that we actually enjoy doing, such as playing golf, traveling the world, or writing music.


Let's stop automatically answering, “What do you do?” with the part of the day we spend trying to live another.


We spend approximately 1/3 of our day sleeping, approximately 1/3 of our day working, and approximately 1/3 of our day recreationally. The 1/3 of the day that we spend recreationally or as we please defines us. With the current state of the economy, there aren't a lot of options as to where to work. Work is Work. At the end of the day, bills need to be paid and mouths need to be fed. But after work, everything we do is largely our choice. We can decide to go hiking, read a novel, or slump on the couch and binge-watching Netflix until midnight rolls by. Answering the question in terms of what we do when we are NOT working would provide a more accurate picture of who we are – as a person. We would get to know each others true selves: hobbies, interests, and values. We are something greater than a work machine.



I while ago I took the Clifton StrengthFinders which said that my number one strength is Relator, the ability to develop deep, personal connections with people. Small talk just won't cut it. I'd much rather get to know what you do with your time than how you earned it. I tend to ask the deep and delving questions, the ones that paint a picture by revealing basic values. To get to know peoples goals, interests, and hobbies. To get to know them on a personal level. The natural human love for talking about self leads to many meaningful words being exchanged.


When I am speaking to a new face and ask, “What do you do?” I am speaking towards the unspoken 1/3. At the conclusion of conversation, a number of people have remarked on the amount of personal information they disclosed while meeting me for the first time. I began to realize that not only was I learning a lot about them, but they were learning a lot about themselves. When we begin to question our true motives and passions, we must first revisit our fundamentals. This spontaneous moment of self-reflection and inner value setting causes our the answer to be revealed to the questioner and to ourselves. 


The thought of what we do when we aren't working is not that many ponder, let alone decide to make the centerpiece of their lives. Realize that we are defined by our voluntary actions. What we do when we are given free will is who we truly are. Think about how you decide to spend the entirety of your 24 hours. That is what defines you.


Do you like what you do?