Meaning, Context, and Culture: Banishing “What do you do?” to the realm of other meaningless questions

As I’ve previously written about, How are you? is a meaningless phrase: a weightless vehicle for context and tone.

Then there’s the opposite problem: words that carry too much weight, leaving no room for context.

“What do you do?” is such a question.


When this question is asked, the questioner is specifically asking:

1. How do you earn money? 

(Or, if you don’t earn money because you’re raising a child, how your spouse earns money, or, if you’re unemployed, how you want to earn money.)

2. What life decisions have you made? 

(Not just your current title and current company, but your occupation generally. Certainly this says something about you!)

3. Where are you going next? 

(Because jobs are seen as mere steps on a ladder, and presumably you want to keep climbing, right?)

4. How do you compare to me? 

(Because now that person has created a situation where it’s awkward if you then don’t ask “What do you do?” too.)

5. What should we talk about next? 

(Rarely is “What do you do?” the end of a conversation. The question was asked in order to find a way to keep the conversation going. Perhaps the noblest of the reasons.)

I’m 34 years old, and until very recently, I had to either answer “I’m in school” or “I’m trying to…”

Now I can say, “I’m a professor.”

Of course, I much prefer saying the latter — you know, being an actual noun.

But in none of these cases was my answer, in any way, reflective of what I “do.”

Because I don’t do one thing. I do lots of things. And we all do lots of things. We’re more than our jobs, more than how we earn money. (In fact, I would argue that if we’re just “doing” one thing, we’re suppressing our aspirations, missing the chance to turn them into actually-achievable goals.

Prior to college, I decided that I liked Teaching and Mentoring, so I’d be an elementary school teacher.

Then I decided that, because I also liked Writing, I’d be a high school English teacher.

Then 9/11 happened and I decided that, because I liked Writing and (now) Politics, I’d write speeches for political candidates.

Then a family member went to prison and I became interested in the Law. And because I still liked Writing and Politics, I’d become a lawyer and maybe, someday, a politician. (Makes me cringe now.)

In law school, I decided that, because I still liked Mentoring and Teaching, I’d tutor the Law School Admissions Test and the Bar Exam.

After law school, because I realized that I liked Research — and that I liked Politics, Writing, Teaching, and Mentoring more than practicing the Law — I decided to become a professor of public policy.

Although I’ve chosen my profession, and although my answer to the “What do you do?” question will be the same for the foreseeable future, under the surface, I’m always changing.

So I’m always listening.


No need to keep hitting refresh in anticipation of my next post.

Subscribe via e-mail. When there is a new post, you will know about it. That's it! No spamming!

 Or subscribe via RSS.

How I Helped Tim Ferriss or the 52nd Best Benefit of Journaling or How I Procrastinated Yesterday

A few days ago, I was procrastinating. It was a stupidly easy task — a few minutes at most — but it produced disproportionate amounts of anxiety. Finally, I decided to be nimble and do something else.

So I started flipping through old journals. (Made easier because we’re in the midst of a move to New York City and they were stacked in a box in my office.)

I came across one from about two years ago, written right after my fifteen minutes of fame on Twitter.

Here’s the story, briefly: Tim Ferriss posted a really personal story involving suicide. After telling the story, Ferriss presented an argument about why people should not commit suicide. One of Ferriss’s several points is that a person who commits suicide might cause more sadness among friends and family than he or she experienced themselves.

Brian Cuban, Mark Cuban’s lesser-known brother, took issue with the word might, arguing that this suggested that it might not, which in turn means that suicide is an OK option. Cuban and Ferriss then got in a Twitter battle, each side joined by their followers.

I Tweeted something about words being imperfect, and how meaning cannot be derived without the context of other words. By focusing narrowly on might, Cuban was missing the point. Worse, he was extrapolating to argue that Ferriss was arguing that suicide was OK — which was the complete opposite of his actual argument.

Ferriss quoted me as his closing argument and ended the battle.

Mic. drop.

Reading my journal entry, I sensed some vanity. I was on a dopamine high because I’d earned the (brief) respect of the famous Tim Ferriss, a bunch of new Twitter followers and blog readers. And I was absolutely damning of Cuban’s comments: condescending, almost to the point of vindictiveness.

This was disappointing to me. I’d like to think that the Michael Motta of T0day wouldn’t have gloated so much, or been so quick to shit on Cuban. (Or even taken the time to get involved in an ultimately meaningless Twitter debate.)

But the truth is, I’m not sure how I’d react today. I’m subject to the same condition as Brian Cuban and Tim Ferriss: mental models. Ferriss saw one thing. Cuban another. And me a third. We’re all just responding to the world we see, not the world of others, not the world we share.


No need to keep hitting refresh in anticipation of my next post.

Subscribe via e-mail. When there is a new post, you will know about it. That's it! No spamming!

 Or subscribe via RSS.