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Ahh god this question

Ramit Sethi

OK, let’s pretend you’re at a conference. There’s a table with tea and coffee over here. Everyone is wearing nametags. You recognize someone across the room, and as you’re walking towards him, you run into a small group.

Someone says, “Oh, meet (your name).”

What’s the first question you’ll probably get asked?

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“What do you do?”

AHHH GOD THIS QUESTION.

“What do you do?” is the bane of my existence for so many reasons:

  • People lean on it as a conversational crutch. The next time you meet someone, try not to use this question. How long can you go?
  • If you’re hitting on someone at a bar, never ask this question. They’ve been asked it 5,000 times that night and now you’re like everyone else. (I have a lot of other dating suggestions but maybe another time.)

Most importantly, we get asked it literally thousands of times in our lifetime…but we never really stop to think about what our answer means to the people around us.

I get it. It seems “weird” to even imagine plotting a perfect response to a question we get every day. So pre-rehearsed, Ramit! I like to be authentic!

I like a lot of things. I also like to understand the way the world really works, and the way you answer “What do you do?” can completely change people’s impression of you.

How do you answer it?

I’ll tell you what I do. For example, I’ve written about how I tested “I’m a writer” versus “I’m an author.” Different answers got very, very different results.

I also asked a bunch of people how they introduce themselves. See what they say here. Notice how a lot of people try to be cute instead of answering the damn question. “I help people conquer their fears to find their dreams to — ZzZzzz.”

There’s a small window of opportunity to totally shape people’s impressions of you.

If you answer correctly, they step back, raise their eyebrows, and say, “Wow!”

Instant respect.

On the other hand, if you give a boring answer, like “I work at an insurance brokerage” or  “I’m a marketing manager”…”I do a lot with Excel”…or “I like yoga”…they’ll nod quietly and say “Oh, that’s cool…Well, I’m going to get some celery…bye!”

See ya.

These intangibles — the way you look, the clothes you wear, the way you introduce yourself — matter. As much as you want someone to look inside your soul, peel away the layers of your millennial angst, and give you instant respect…nobody cares. Human beings are influenced by the intangibles.

And if you can change the way people perceive you, while being totally authentic, wouldn’t you want to?

What would it mean to be able to walk up and confidently answer that question with an amazing answer? To get the same kind of “oohs” and “aahs” that people get when they mention that they work at a great company, like Google or McKinsey?

What if you had an awesome job to talk about and amazing coworkers? A job that — when you brought it up — secretly made ALL your friends jealous?

“Oh yeah…I have to tell you about something cool that just happened. My boss just put me in charge of this project, and he decided to fly me across the country to meet someone so I could hit the ground running.”

(Not a hypothetical. I’m flying an IWT team member to NYC in 3 weeks to do exactly that.)

Think about the way you introduce yourself. If you’re bored, you’ll be boring.

If you love what you do, and you communicate that, people gravitate towards excitement.

I want to talk more about this.

  • I’ve blocked off the next couple weeks to talk more about “what you do” and — if you want to — how you can change that.

But first, I want to hear how you’d respond.

Would it be a boring response, like “I’m a marketing manager?”

Or would it be something else?

And if you had your Dream Job, how would you respond?

Let me know in the comments below. I read every response.

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33 Comments

 
  1. Amanda Bullerwell

    I am an Aerospace Engineering Manager. Lately, I’ve been running a project to upgrade the company’s major software. I spend most of my time helping people do better work by eliminating as much beaurocracy, frustration and tedium as possible.

    • Alden

      This sounds horribly boring to be honest even to someone in tech (who probably would be most likely audience to be interested). Why not something more like:

      “I make the lives of hundreds of employees better by upgrading their crappy tools into better software.”

      This isn’t the greatest either, as I spent about 20 seconds on it, but it’s still a lot less “eyes glazing over” and “manager speak” than what you wrote.

  2. Benjamin MacLeay

    I do tax mitigation through the use of life insurance. That’s all I say, if they really want to know more I wait for them to ask. As a side note, most people who work with life insurance are terrified to ever say the words “life insurance”, own what you do or do something else.

  3. Chloe

    I help other young people to start their own online businesses so that they have the freedom to leave the jobs they don’t like, and travel the world instead. And I love it!

    • bryan

      Would be very interested to learn mor abouy your business model as i am tired of the 9-5 grind with a micromanager for a boss the last 17 yrs

  4. Samuel Mandell

    I used to just say “Life Coach” but then what I would ALWAYS get back was “Oh I have a friend who’s a Life Coach too…” Great, so you must know everything about me already then huh? 🙂

    Instead now I try to focus on the *value* that I provide and ignore the label, which carries many preconceived notions. So here is my current answer (that I’m always tweaking):

    “I help people think through difficult decisions or transitions in their lives.”

    It’s a little vague but (hopefully) somewhat intriguing. Oh? What kind of problems, how do you do it, what people? If they don’t really care then it end there, but the answer itself is an invitation to go deeper if the person is actually curious.

  5. Christopher

    “I’m an astronomer.” Just three words – short and sweet – but almost always elicits a wide-eyed “Really? How cool/interesting/unusual.” followed by some question about life in the universe or black holes or NASA’s great conspiracy to hide the truth about a planet-killing asteroid that will wipe us all out in 2019.

    • Samuel Mandell

      2019 huh? Good to know!

  6. JB

    My old response: “I’m an engineer.”
    Then one day I responded to a cute girl at a bar in downtown LA with “I’m a designer.”
    It kicked off a great conversation with a lot of mutual interest and chemistry.
    Fast forward 5 years later, we’ve been married for 3 years.

    • Annie

      Aww, that’s super sweet!

  7. Paul

    I do what I want! Oh for an income,…I get people excited about things. Promotional work. Fun stuff. Different stuff all the time. I get to work concerts, sporting events, and other cool things.

  8. Ari

    I help my clients attract and retain investors by auditing their financial statements

    • Jurgy

      I threw up in my mouth – just a little – sorry.

      how about “I find money for people”

    • Scot

      Yes! I like that. I find money for people.

  9. David

    I’m curious as to your advice for individuals with security clearances. I have a friend who is a civil servant, but he can’t discuss his job. When pressed the conversation goes as follows:

    A: What do you do?
    B: I’m an engineer.
    A: What kind?
    B: Mechanical.
    A: Where do you work?
    B: I work for the Department of Defense
    A: So what exactly do you do?
    B: (Goes in closer as if whispering) If I told you, the terrorists would win.
    A: (Laughs)
    B: (Changes the topic)

    How could this situation be improved?

    • Alden

      Why not skip straight to “If I told you, the terrorists would win” part… ?

      That seems like an absolutely GREAT conversation starter instead of “I’m an engineer.”

  10. Seb Brantigan

    Lol I actually agree! you could make a drinking game out of it…a shot for every time you are asked ‘what do you do’ haha. I cringe a little when I have to ask that question or am asked it, so I just ask how they found this particular marketing event and usually they tell you what they do and it creates a bit of dialogue as there’s probably a story behind the whole thing.

  11. Anastacio

    Ramith I also hate when people ask that question too! It drives me nuts. Many yrs ago I used to ask that boring & repetitive question.

    Here is my response…

    So, what do you do Anastacio?

    I climbs mountains, I do triathlons & swim at the beach on Wednesdays with a group of high achievers, I read books about business, mindset, happiness & building relationships, I attend powerful seminars by thought leaders like Tony Robbins & Jack Canfield, I do weight lifting workouts at least 3 times a week, I host dinner parties in my house & make killer mojitos, I take amazing pictures on my iphone, I inspire others to follow their dreams by living my life to the fullest, I write thank you notes as a token of appreciation to my friends & I play with my new born baby everytime I get home.

    When they hear me saying this, they reaction is… WOW!!! Then I ask them, what do you do? Some people are in awe & don’t know what to say because I guess they are embarrased of realizing that they always ask the same freaking question. Others, get really excited & start sharing similar things. And when that happens it’s magical. It feels like we are in rapport & having a real conversation.

    Sometimes, when they ask, what do you do?? I ask back, what do you mean?? Are you refering to how I make money or what do I do in general in my life? It’s funny to see their reaction.

    What’s your break the ice question when you are about to meet someone for the 1st time?

    Looking forward to hear from you RS!!

    Cheers 🙂

  12. Lars

    I go on hardcore expeditions all over the world, make TV-shows filming them and produce and direct sci-fi movies in Hollywood.

    -My life from now on out 🙂

  13. Alwynn

    Hi Ramit!
    Your attitude changed my life.

    Q What do you do?
    I am a data analyst.
    B-O-R-I-N-G.

    I AM A STATISTICIAN.
    S-N-O-R-E!

    I do that because it excites ME. I find spreadsheets interesting. I can look at a bunch of sites and can create a interesting, useful table quickly.

    I just say: I work with data. What do YOU do?

  14. Trish Sullivan

    I teach teenagers how to manueaver a motor vehicle in our great State of Delaware!🚗. 🚓🚓 😎😜😳😁

  15. Jonathan

    Someone: What do you do?
    Me: I fuck bitches and get money!

    • Jonathan

      Seriously though, spending any amount of time thinking how people are going to react to every little thing you say to them shows that you are a self conscious freak.

  16. Nance

    I am the happy beacon of light to my vendors. I am the girl that gets people paid by reviewing scrolls of conglomerate invoices that need payment. I either send them via snail mail or by courier of choice but not by stork. My day consists of schmoozing with credit managers and consoling the angry hucksters that clamor for their dough. …Ican you guess what i am now? I’m a accounts payable clerk.

    how you like them apples?

  17. John

    I’m a performance artist. Perfect strangers come to my studio , take off their clothes, and I cut things from their bodies. Then I sew up their wounds. During this time we talk and they share stories and sometimes I tell stories, too. Almost the majority of the time we laugh and have a good time. After the performance is over they thank me and pay me and I never see them again.

    • nance

      applause!!

  18. Gabe

    I make people happy. I solve their water quality problems improving their lives.

  19. Jan

    I steal a quote from a Chris Rock stand-up routine and see if they get the reference. I’m a geologist…

    “BEEN COUNTIN’ THESE ROCKS, BITCH!”

  20. Oussama

    I study and read every day in order to get knowledge and work hard to share it with everyone else. Because I believe knowledge should be available for anyone who wants it, and that by sharing what we all know we can all improve our global knowledge.

    • Slut

      I’ve let this run on abit now being the greatest dancer!

      If these were life changing blogs ?why are most replys so……bitter? Poss a reflection of a jabronie that’s a tad silly thinking there better or most of all smarter than the next. Move on stop beating ur bitch up! Maybe, just ,maybe meet up an form a ring of roses. As life’s too short! Everyone at least try be happy with your self,for itself..

      Dude,man,Ken

  21. anmol

    I never tried this before, but this article compelled me to think about it. Would like to have a feedback on this:

    “I try to do what kids do in college, except by not going to college.”

    If they get interested saying “like what?”, I would follow up with – “Until now I have done it for programming, writing, public speaking, personal finance and event organisation.”

    Let me know if it’s bad, or how could I improve.

  22. Carol Andrews

    I’m a designer of gifts and accessories created from my photography.

  23. Craig Bach

    I’m an adventurer. Would you rather hear about those, or how I finance them?