What Do You Do?

“What do you do?” is a loaded question that is really asking you to talk about work. I have so many problems with this.

It’s a hard question to truthfully answer since I can no longer just blurb out my job title. And I don’t think that my job title was ever a great answer even when I could truthfully use it.

Without a job you are nothing in America

In America it’s held that working hard is the greatest and most noble thing that one can possibly do with your time. I’ve never really understood the logic of this, though I do admittedly work hard from time to time.

Americans are infatuated with their jobs – work is how they define themselves. I think this stems from the puritan work ethic we inherited from our European forefathers, but somehow we’ve taking it to an extreme. Or maybe Europeans just grew up and we kept to the old ideals. Whatever the reason, our counterparts across the Atlantic don’t define themselves by the jobs they work nearly to the same extent that we do. They just don’t seem to care as much, perhaps they have better things to do.

Define yourself outside of work

Even when I was working more than full time I tried to define myself outside of the confines of “job title.” In conversation I try to present myself as a person first, and if that fails, I try talking about hobbies. What I do for income is tertiary or even farther down on the list. Work is usually not as interesting as the other things in life, so why would you start a conversation with it as the subject?

Over the last year or so of traveling I’ve met a lot of people from all over the world. The Americans are generally the most boring. The initial conversation always follows the same formula and really I don’t care that much about your job unless you happen to work somewhere really awesome. People from other countries do a much better job of making interesting initial conversation.

But working takes up most of people’s time

Yeah, I get it. For most non financially independent people working uses up a majority of their available time. I can understand that work is a big part of your existence, so naturally you are going to talk about it. But it’s not the only thing you do with your day, and hopefully not the most interesting. I’m sure you have some subject more stimulating.

I usually just don’t answer the question

To steer the conversation away from the usual job nonsense you need to have an attack plan. Hijack the conversation before it even gets going. The next time you meet someone new or you introduce somebody, try to avoid work in the introduction. Rather, talk about anything else and watch how the conversation unfolds. It’s a much more interesting initial interaction.

Take for example two versions of an introduction. “My name in Frank and I work in…” Snooze. Instead, how about “I’m Frank and I once crashed a party I wasn’t invited to by sneaking in inside a coffin.” Maybe you’ve never personally crashed a party in a coffin, but surely you can come up with something more interesting to break the ice than your job.

Of course eventually your job will come up anyway

It’s almost inevitable that the conversation will eventually turn to the dreaded “what do you do.” And that’s ok since hopefully by now you’ve built up enough rapport with your earlier conversation to answer this in a meaningful and interesting way. By first establishing some common ground talking about something else you set up the whole rest of your interaction for a greater chance of success.

The job question doesn’t have to be a boring conversation killer, in fact with a little thought it can segway into more interesting conversation. There are better ways to answer the “what do you do? question than a brief description of your job title.

Here’s how I answer

Since I’m not working my answers vary significantly depending on the circumstance. Financial independence is a socially sensitive subject. I’m slowly learning when to use each statement – when it is and is not appropriate to drop the financial independence bomb. Sometimes it’s fun and even funny to rattle people a little, but sometimes it really isn’t. People can be very jealous of someone half their age who has managed to retire before them. Trust me on this one.

I use different answers depending on the situation.

Blogger

Writing here is work. But it doesn’t actually pay anything yet, and when it does I won’t keep any of the money anyway. It is work, but it’s not the kind of work implied by the question since it’s more of a hobby. I’m not sure calling myself a professional writer is anything but a lie, but it usually leads to conversation about travel which I find tantalizing.

Hedge fund manager

Recently I’ve been saying that I’m a hedge fund manager, although the fund I manage is tiny since it’s just my assets. And I don’t actually actively manage much, there’s just not a whole lot to do in index investing besides annually rebalancing assets which takes me less than an hour to do. But I get to tell people I do it on my own schedule from anywhere in the world with a laptop. And when you consider the thousands in earnings each year, less than an hour of work is a pretty noteworthy hourly wage.

It sounds impressive. And it’s mostly a lie.

This subject is usually a good segway to talking about other people’s finances. For some reason people are really open when they think I’m some sort of wall street prodigy, they generally open up and tell all of their dirty financial secrets. But it usually leads to meaningful discourse about what they would rather be doing with their lives if money wasn’t an issue.

Retired

Other times I’ll just come out with it and say I’m retired. For people outside of the financial independence movement they just immediately assume that I’m much too young for that. They assume I’m just telling a lie or have a trust fund. It’s awkward without first priming.

For others it can be a good eye opener to what is possible. I retired early and they can do it too.

Unemployed

This is a useful one sometimes. It’s true as I am technically unemployed, although not in the usually used sense of the word. When I say this people usually get quiet and leave me alone, as there are a lot of negative associations with that term. It’s a good conversation killer.

Stay at home dude

A stay at home dude is like a stay at home dad, but without the little bastards. Society understands stay at home mom, and the gender reversal of a stay at home dad is pretty easy for most to grasp. But the double whammy of a guy who stays at home while their wife or girlfriend works is mind blowing. I used this one when I still had a home and a girlfriend who worked, but sadly this one is no longer applicable. I still think it’s a funny term.

Chef

Sometimes I say I’m a chef, which is a total lie since I don’t actually work in a kitchen anymore. But any time not working is socially awkward I say I’m a chef. When immigration or some other authority figure asks me what I do I’m inevitably a chef.

For the record I am definitely not a chef anymore, and I apologize to any cooks and chefs reading this who are still actually working really hard for that title. It’s not an easy job. For me to borrow the title whenever it’s convenient feels like a sleight of hand to all the people who do work their asses off.

Real estate mogul

The condo I own does pay a little these days. At only one small property I probably don’t qualify as a mogul. Perhaps king is a better title, after all a man’s house is his castle, except that I don’t actually live in that castle. What about landlord, is that a job title? Slumlord is even better, as I often feel like I’m charging exorbitant rent.

Something along this line of real estate investor is probably the most truthful answer since this is one job that still requires my active participation from time to time.

People, Americans especially, love talking about real estate. I don’t really get it, but it’s usually more interesting than talking about jobs.

I have a fear of being perceived as a non productive member of society

Am I actually contributing any less to the world by not working? Does whether or not you get paid actually have anything to do with it? Do we really need a career or profession to be productive members of society? Can’t you still be an engineer even if you are not getting paid? Or an artist? Or a scientist?

Working for work’s sake is not as inherently good as our puritan upbringing would have us believe. Working solely for money is distasteful to me. Rather, we should work for something because it’s interesting, because it brings joy. Maybe you are one of the lucky few who happen to get paid to do something that brings joy to your life, and if so, let’s talk about it.

But for the overwhelming majority of you who work only out of necessity, let’s please all agree to talk about something else.

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