Why You Should Never Tell People What You Do

Imagine you’re at a networking event. You’ve just met someone for the first time, and you’re trying to start a conversation. What better way to break the ice than to ask them ‘what do you do?’. Everyone has a job, and people typically like to talk about them.

The thrust of the question “what do you do” tends to equal “what’s your current method of earning a living”, and, when asked, we typically respond with our current job title and maybe a brief work history. We tend to expect the same from anyone we ask.

Although it’s the expected norm, you may be surprised that this isn’t the best way to answer this question. In fact, we should never tell someone we’ve just met (in a professional context) ‘what we do’. That’s because there is a better way to answer this question that’s both more interesting and more productive.

Think about a typical response you might receive when you ask someone you’ve just met “what do you do?”. “I’m an accountant for a local software firm with 10 years professional experience” or “I work in retail but I’m studying a business degree” would both be responses you might expect. The accountant might go on to describe his last job, or firm, and maybe what his current role entails. The student might describe what they are currently learning at university.

Now ask someone in Hollywood what they do, and the answer will most likely be slightly different. “I’m going to be the next ‘it’ actor”, or “I’m a screenwriter working on the next blockbuster” might be more typical. The screen-writer might go on to describe the project he’s working on and the steps he’s taking to ensure success. “I’m booking meetings with agents currently and working with a group of friends to help distribute the screenplay” he might say. He may even give this answer while he’s driving you in a limousine from the airport to your hotel.

Finally, let’s look at someone like Elon Musk. When he’s asked what he does, he talks about how he’s looking to facilitate human migration to Mars or revolutionise our cities and the way we move. He’s less likely to tell you that he builds rockets and has seventeen years of professional experience.

Elon Musk will always answer the question “what do you do?” slightly different to how the accountant or business student does. Elon Musk first discusses what he’s trying to achieve, or ‘his mission’, and then moves on to how he is trying to achieve it. The accountant describes what he does and validates this with what he has done. It’s a subtle but very different way of answering the question. One looks forward and explains how the future will be achieved and the other states the present and describes how it came to be.

Elon Musk’s response to the “what do you do?” question is, in fact, more like how the Hollywood screenwriter driving limousines answered the question. Both articulated a future state, and both went on to outline how they are going to achieve success.

Out of these three people, the screenwriter, the accountant, and Elon Musk, who would you expect to be more successful over time? You would logically order these people from least likely to most as they are above. We intuitively dismiss the screenwriter from Hollywood as delusional, we assume the accountant will likely continue accounting and be successful and laud Elon Musk as a visionary. This is entirely normal, yet completely backward.

We do this intuitively because we rely on a person’s current employment and past experience to determine their professional credibility and, therefore, validate their likely future success. We do this even if that person’s previous achievements are unrelated to their future ambitions.

We believe Elon Musk can get to Mars because he successfully grew and sold PayPal, yet we dismiss the screen-writer as delusional because he’s driving a limousine. The likelihood of writing a successful Hollywood blockbuster is far greater than the likelihood of being the first human to Mars, yet we all seem to be comfortable with ignoring this fact. We do this because we don’t have any ‘evidence’ that the screenwriter is credible, therefore dismiss his likelihood of success. The opposite is true for Elon Musk.

The most successful people in our society, however, almost never exhibit this type of thinking. Elon Musk doesn’t use his past achievements to validate why he will succeed in the future. How often have you heard Elon Musk tell us that his work at X.com or PayPal proves he will get to Mars? Never. Yet we all do so on his behalf. We use his CV as a surrogate to assume his future success.

Like Elon Musk, the screenwriting limousine driver is demonstrating the same level of thinking with how he answers the question ‘what do you do?’. He isn’t concerned about his current work situation because his mission is to become a screenwriter, not drive limousines. What he’s currently doing to earn a living is irrelevant, as is his lack of demonstratable experience in screenwriting, to his likely future success. He has a clear objective and everything he does, including talking to you, contributes towards mission success. For reference, the limousine driver is loosely based on the history of Aaron Sorkin, who drove limousines in Manhattan while writing “A Few Good Men” and then went on to write “West Wing” among other successful productions.

If we all internally relied upon what we have done in the past, or what we are currently doing, to determine what we can do in the future, we would limit our ability to do bold new things. Logically we would never move forward as a society. Someone driving limousines would never be able to write a screenplay or someone that grew and sold a software company would never be compelled to build rockets or electric cars.

The happiest and most successful people always know what they are looking to achieve and where they are heading. Consequently, they happily answer the question ‘what do you do?’ with an aspirational description of what they wish to achieve. “I’m an accountant for a software firm with 10 years professional experience” doesn’t describe a future state nor does it help others understand what you are looking to achieve, either personally or professionally. It is, therefore, an ineffective answer, driven from an unproductive mindset, and is unlikely to lead to future success. This is why we should never answer the question “what do you do?” with a factual description of our current employment and what we’ve done.

As such, if you can’t answer “what do you do?” in a purposeful, future-facing manner, then maybe it’s time to consider how you might. When someone new asks you “what do you do?” be bold enough to share what you wish to achieve. These ambitions don’t need to be as grand as Elon Musk’s, but they should be meaningful to you. This will help re-enforce your aspirations internally and may aid to recruit people to help you to achieve your mission. It will also make for a far more interesting and productive conversation with someone who is looking to professionally break the ice.

About the author — Aidan Kenealy


My mission is to help those with high growth businesses realise their vision for success. I draw from the unique lessons learned growing EMGN to help founders and CEOs get the best out of what their businesses can be.

If you would like to discuss how I can help you and your business — please reach out via LinkedIn or email aidan@hiov.co.nz

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Professional startup advisor for founders of high growth startups. More details @ https://aidankenealy.com/

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