So, What Do You Do?
I can feel myself squirm, face flushing red and palms getting sweaty, whenever someone I’ve just met asks me the standard question: “what do you do?” Everyone in our society knows that this does not mean “what do you do for fun,” “what do you do on the weekends,” or “what lights you up” – it means what is your job.
What I do when I get this question is step from side to side and fidget with my hands incessantly because right now, I don’t actually “do” anything. I don’t have an answer that flows off the tongue because what I am doing is figuring out what I want to do. And how long am I allowed to say that?
When it was just one month after I quit my job (maybe two or three months if I am pushing it), I felt totally comfortable saying I was taking some time off from my Biglaw job to figure out what I wanted to be “when I grew up.”
But now that many more months have passed and I don’t have anything to show (on the outside) for a new career, I don’t know what to tell people. I feel judged when they look at me with what I deem to be pity when I tell them I am still just “doing” nothing (i.e., nope, no formal 9-5 yet!).
I’m pretty sure, for the most part at least, that I am projecting my own insecurities about not having a job onto their faces and minds. Most people probably don’t care at all, or don’t think it has been too long, or haven’t even given a second thought to me or my career. But in the moment that they ask the dreaded question, I feel like they are staring right into me, judging me, disapproving and then going around and talking about me behind my back.
But I Am Doing Something
It isn’t really true that I have done nothing since I left. Some things I’ve done I’m just not ready to talk about, in particular with people I don’t know very well, because these things don’t seem like “real jobs” yet.
My dabbles (which I know are going to lead to something eventually, if nothing but to eliminate what I thought I wanted to do but don’t actually) are definitely not real jobs yet. I haven’t made any money since I left Biglaw. But I also haven’t submitted my resume to one single place because I’m focusing my time and putting my faith in other things.
Boxing Yourself In
I used to just be a lawyer. When someone would say “tell me something about yourself,” “what’s your story” or “what do you do,” describing my job was all I could think to say. I defined myself so entirely by what it was that I did that I couldn’t imagine myself as anything else.
I think a lot of us do this – put ourselves in small boxes that hold just one thing inside. Maybe you are feeling that way too, whether it is because you are a lawyer, dentist, accountant, cashier, secretary, teacher, or any number of careers. But you aren’t just that and you don’t have to be just that.
You Are So Much More Than What You Do
I was walking by the American Museum of Natural History one evening this summer after a long and sweaty run in Central Park. I love to run before the sun is setting so that I can finish my run at sunset and enjoy a cool-down walk home that often takes me past the impressive entrance of the museum.
On this particular night I took some extra time to scan the exterior of the building running the span of a block on Central Park West. While I’ve always known that Teddy Roosevelt was honored at the museum (his New York State official memorial sits two-stories high at the entrance so it’s hard to miss), I hadn’t ever taken the time to look at the other dedications surrounding the monument to New York’s 33rd governor and the country’s 26th president.
Written in the marble surrounding the entire base of the museum are words describing more of what Teddy Roosevelt was. In addition to being a governor and a president, which are written on the side of his statue, the other inscriptions tell more of his story. He was also: a Ranchman, Scholar, Explorer, Scientist, Conservationist, Naturalist, Statesman, Author, Historian, Humanitarian, Soldier and Patriot.
It dawned on me as I read all of these things that I didn’t have to be just one thing, either. I had defined myself by just being a lawyer, and more specifically a “Biglaw lawyer,” for so long, that I was blinded by the possibility that I could be something else and many things else.
My search for the next thing is still daunting but also more relaxed since I know I don’t have to look for the “one” thing. I’m on a quest to define and figure out those many things that I am. So far, here are some of the things I have become since leaving Biglaw and how I see myself right now.
I am a: Former Biglaw Lawyer, a Better Daughter (now that I can spend more time with my family), a Scuba Chick (I’ve gotten my advanced certification and have had the time to go diving lots), a Scholar (I’m actually reading the books I buy and get from the library now, instead of just shelving them for some time in the future), a Writer (this blog!), a Chef (I’ve tried out some great recipes and am learning how to cook better and healthier things) and an Athlete (spin classes count, right?).
An Exercise to Redefine How You See Yourself
Take some time to think of what words define you. Just as Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t “just” a governor or “just” a president, you aren’t just a lawyer or just an accountant. Stretch your mind and imagination and come up with five or ten things that you can describe yourself as right now.
If you can’t list out at least five things, think about what words you wish you could use to describe yourself. A Yogi, even if you haven’t been to a class in a few years? Then write it down and figure out how to become one. A Baker? Grab a cookie recipe off the internet, buy the ingredients, and bake something for your family, the office or your neighbors. A Linguist? Rent a movie in the foreign language you took in high school and struggle through it, promising yourself that you’ll start practicing again.
Even if you were able to come up with a long list of things that you are, if you are feeling inspired, you, too, can come up with a list things that you wish to become, along with steps you can take to make those descriptions come true.
It might sound cheesy, but take it one more step and practice saying these words and descriptions out loud. Share these with others, even if it feels a little weird. Soon it will feel natural and you’ll be able to describe yourself beyond your job (if you have one) at the next cocktail party when someone asks you “so what is it that you do?”
Lastly, for those of you who know deep down that you are ready to take the jump and leave your job forever, but can’t quite let go, remember that if you stop being “firstname.lastname@example.org” that just takes away a job title, not your whole being. You are more than just a job or an email address.