We have all been on the receiving end, or we are the ones asking this conversation starter when we meet new people: So what do you do? This way of identifying us as people is most disliked, especially when we are either unhappy with our jobs, in between them, transitioning jobs, or simply tired of being identified by what we do. 

I was recently at a conference in DC where I had this very conversation with someone, and we both agreed that the back and forth about occupations would not really help us get to know much about each other. Instead, we jumped into a conversation about what we care about and why we are passionate about it. 

Yet the question, “What do you do?” is the one we practice elevator pitches to answer, hoping for the light in someone’s eyes to shine with curiosity, wanting to know more about us. 

And yes, I’ve been there too and still am because when someone asks me what I do, I have to come up with something clever to say as well beyond… I’m a keynote speaker. Most then ask what I speak about, and instead of just giving them my topic, I share what I care about and why I do what I do. That tends to create a more interesting dialogue about their lives and how they feel about their relationships at work, their culture, and how they feel valued, appreciated, seen, and heard. 

I know a lot of people who get anxious and awkward in public simply because of this question. Is it because we don’t know what to say? Is it because we think the answer should be a sales pitch of ourselves? Or is it because we know that what we answer is now who we are in the eyes of the other person?

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Originally published on October 13, 2023 at

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash