It comes out at parties, networking events, family dinners… there's no escape. Everybody asks it, everybody's answered it, and everybody sighs when it's mentioned. But nobody dreads it as much as the career changer. It's The Question. Here, Natasha explains how to answer it when you really don't want to.
"So… <insert mildly interested head-tilt here> What do you do?"
If you're miserable at work, the last thing you want to do is talk about your job.
You certainly don't want anyone to define you by your career; it's not a reflection of who you are at all, and you'd hate people to think it was.
And, as a career changer, you know you need to be having a different kind of conversation with people. You want to be making connections and sharing ideas and learning from the people you meet, but when you answer The Question honestly, your chats always end up going into a downward spiral.
"I'm a <insert job title here>. It's really boring; honestly, I hate it… but what can you do?"
The thing is, The Question can actually be a wonderful opportunity to develop and even accelerate your shift, no matter what stage of the journey you're at.
You just need to reframe the way you're answering it.
Let's take a look at a few ways to reinvent your responses.
Change the noun into a verb
It's always been fascinating to me that when asked "What do you do?", people answer with a job title.
First off, it doesn't answer the question. Your job title is not what you do; it's how your company identifies you.
Secondly, it shuts down the flow of conversation quickly. There's no guarantee that the person you're talking to will know what your job title means (what is a senior specialist practitioner, anyway?) – and if that's the case, they're unlikely to ask.
We all know what it looks like: the glazed expression, the slightly raised eyebrow, the pressed lips and the disinterested nod. And so the conversation dies.
Finally, your job title is a tragic distillation of what you actually spend your time doing. I've never come across a job title that encapsulated the contribution someone makes, day after day, in all its complexity and effort.
And to be fair, it's not designed to.
A job title is, at best, a term that captures a function within an organisation.
It's not created to say much about you.
But when you answer The Question with an action-based response – with a verb instead of a noun – all kinds of opportunities open up.
You get to choose which parts of your work you highlight.
You can focus on the parts that you want to spend time talking about, and the parts that might contribute to moving your career change forward.
You frame your work in terms of what you contribute, rather than what your job title says.
An easy template for this:
I help <insert group of people here> to <insert their desired outcome here> by <insert what you actually do here>.
"I help teams in my company take on big, challenging goals and deliver them on time. I do a lot of project management, and I'm also heavily involved in creating the vision and outcomes for the work we do, which I really love."
And, if you want to sling a career change hint on the end, you could say something like:
"My current company works in telecommunications, but I'm also really interested in taking my skills into a more socially oriented environment. I'm a bit stuck on how to do that, to be honest, but I'm working on it!"
These four sentences give the person you're speaking to at least five different insights into what you're good at, what you enjoy, and what you're focused on. The conversation could go in any number of directions.
If you've highlighted a great skill set, you might find you're talking to an interested new employer – or someone who'll immediately think of you next time they hear of an opportunity on the grapevine.
Critically, you've created an opening for them to contribute to you and your career change.
What could you say in response to The Question, using verbs instead of nouns?
Pick something you like
There's nothing wrong with being frank about the fact that you don't like your work very much.
In fact, sometimes sharing this in a genuine way can be a wonderful opportunity for meaningful connection with a new person.
But given that The Question tends to come up at the very beginning of an interaction with somebody new, it's not the smoothest or most inviting conversation starter.
There's some kind of inherent magic to a positive response to a question. As human beings, we're touched and moved by positivity; it draws us in and urges us to support it. We want to play a role in fostering and nurturing it. "Yes, and…" is so much more inviting a conversation to participate in than "That sounds awful…"
So, how do you answer The Question in a positive way when you don't like your work, without lying through gritted teeth?
Pick the aspect of what you do that you enjoy the most, or that you're most engaged with right now – and bear in mind, it doesn't have to be something you get paid for.
"At the moment I'm learning about entrepreneurship, and how to set up a business alongside a day job. It's a seriously steep learning curve, but I'm really enjoying it!"
"I work a full-time day job, and at weekends I volunteer for an organisation that supports young people with learning disabilities."
"I'm training for an Iron Man race."
What do you actually want to have a conversation about?
Take control of the direction of the conversation.
There is a social expectation – like a dance – around The Question. If someone asks you what you do, you know on a gut level that you're supposed to answer with the job title associated with your primary paid pursuit.
But there are no rules, really. You get to say where the dialogue goes.
If you talk about things you don't like, people will have conversations with you about things you don't like. You invite those conversations into your world by allowing them out of your mouth.
"So, what do you do?"
"I'm an accountant."
"Oh, my brother's an accountant. He was saying something the other day about this new tax legislation…"
And there you go, having another conversation about something you don't like, wishing you were somewhere else, and getting no further with your career change.
Now, watch this:
"So, what do you do?"
"Right now, I'm spending as much time as possible learning about the stock market. I'm finding it so interesting!"
"Oh right; do you use those tracking apps? Stocks aren't my thing but my work colleague has turned it into a side gig alongside his work and he mentioned something about an app he's been using…"
"No, but I'd love to know more. Could you put us in touch, perhaps? It sounds like your colleague has done exactly what I'm trying to do…"
You get to have a chat with someone about something you enjoy. You get to tap into their knowledge and networks in ways that could accelerate your shift.
And, quite frankly, they'll probably have a more enjoyable interaction with you…
How could you answer The Question with something you really like talking about?
Answer with an umbrella
Let's take a good look at what's really going on when The Question gets asked.
It's cracked out early on in conversations because it's an access point – a quick way of getting to know something fundamental about the person we're in conversation with.
On the surface, you're being asked: "What do you get paid to do?"
But beneath that, what's actually being asked is: "Can you give me something we can connect over?"
When you're on the receiving end of The Question, you're being given an opportunity to share something of who you are with the person you're speaking to.
So if you're looking for a career change and your current work doesn't capture much of who you are, responding with your job isn't giving the questioner what they're really asking for.
Start by answering and getting clear on this: What's the overarching story (the umbrella story) of my life? And why do I do what I do?
For example, maybe you work in customer service, but what you're really called by is finding creative ways to put a smile on people's faces.
Maybe you're a graphic designer, but what moves you is the universality of visual experiences – how art and imagery transcends language and cultural barriers.
Or maybe you're an IT technician, but what you're really about is helping people do things they never believed they could do. It shows up in your family, in your cycling group, in your donations to an education charity...
"So what do you do?"
"Everything I do is about changing the narrative of success. I'm interested in what's possible when people stop trying to get everything right, and start focusing on incremental progress and celebration instead."
"That sounds fascinating; what do you mean by that?"
"I think there's huge pressure on people to get life sorted and perfect right away. We have to have the great job, the perfect marriage, all our ducks in a row... and it drives people crazy, because it takes all the joy out of learning and exploring and making mistakes. I'm really interested in making it OK to be human, and imperfect, and on a journey."
"I completely relate to that; I've felt like I'm on a treadmill for years. And it affects my kids, too – my daughter has such impossible standards for herself. I'm really glad there's people talking about it. This sounds right up my girlfriend's street. So how do you do all this?"
"Well, I try to embody it as much as possible in my own life, for a start – I work a day job at a university and I'm also setting up a couple of businesses on the side as an experiment. I write on these kinds of topics on my blog, and I'd love to start a project entirely focused on this subject at some point. I'm just exploring the best way to do it at the moment."
"That sounds great. I know a couple of people who'd love to hear more about this, actually – do you mind if I get your details and put you in touch?"
Lead with your umbrella, and you get to have all kinds of conversations underneath it – what you currently do for a living, what you'd love to do for a living, things you never knew you could do for a living...
What's your umbrella story, and how could you use it next time to answer The Question?
One of The Question's redeeming features is that once you've answered it, you then get to ask it.
And if you're someone who's stuck for ideas on what your future career might be, this conversation is a great way to gather clues and information.
If you've already considered (and discounted) all the careers you know of, then The Question is a glorious opportunity to find out about types of work you didn't even know existed.
And in addition to that, it's a great way to find out the truth, the surprises, and all the gory details of other people's careers.
So, once you've answered The Question yourself, in whatever way you choose, make sure to turn the conversation around to the other person – and then get deeply curious about their answer.
How long have they been doing what they do? What got them into it? Are there myths that people believe about their industry that aren't true? What's their favourite part of their work? What don't they like about it?
This is your chance to play Detective, and get real-life, expert insights into different types of work.
You never know what you might discover.
How are you going to switch up your answer to The Question and further your career change next time you're asked? Let me know in the comments below.
Natasha Stanley is Head of Content for Careershifters and Head Coach for our Career Change Launch Pad. She also currently travels the world as a horse-trainer, business consultant and copywriter.