TIB #2: How to confidently answer the “What do you do?” question as an online creator

Written by Arno Jansen

What do you do?

— Just about everybody

It is part of human nature to label things. We all do it and it seems to be an essential requirement for effective communication. But when it comes to work, the “what do you do” question always bothered me a bit. Being an indie entrepreneur has not made it easier to answer it. But, I found a solution!

I am not my work (but I like it a lot)

The problem with the “what do you do” question for an online creator or entrepreneur is that it is usually answered with “I am an <insert profession here>”. 

In my case, the standard answer was often “I am a software engineer”. Within whatever company you are working, my job title would suffice as people within that environment would know what it meant.

Outside of the job, that answer is incomplete. Most of us have (had) different roles and responsibilities. We all wear many different hats. For me, most of them were related to engineering hardware or software, but it was never the whole story.

But what is more problematic is the fact that it ties your identity to your work. You are much more than your job title. I am also a husband, father, writer, teacher, traveler, and musician. I even get paid to do some of those things. 😉

Don’t get me wrong, I have always enjoyed work in the grand scheme of things. But I am not my work. It is not good for my mental health to identify too closely with the work I do. Especially as an independent online creator

The ‘trouble’ with being an online creator or indie entrepreneur

Since I started earning my income independently, answering the “what do you do” question has become more challenging still. 

During the first two years of independence, I would do just about anything to pay the mortgage. Building a WordPress site for a food truck owner, other entrepreneurs pivot their business during a pandemic, defining vision and strategy for new (online) businesses, coaching existing entrepreneurs in challenging times. As long as there was “online component”, I would do it. Except NSFW stuff, because well… it is literally Not Suitable For Work 😀

Now that I am further on in this journey, my days are filled with a myriad of things to develop multiple online platforms and communities. Coding, recording a podcast, making videos, developing training material and working with clients. (psst, I use my L.E.A.D. framework to figure out how to enjoy my work the most)

Answering the “what do you do” question has become an exercise in regurgitating half-baked elevator pitches for the projects I am working on. It makes me feel as if I am a lousy salesman or somebody who is just full of himself.

Be the verb

This episode of “Deep Dive with Ali Abdaal” discussed that very same issue and offered a great solution: Be the verb, not the noun. So instead of “I am an engineer”, the answer could be “I am engineering X”. This has a few benefits:

  1. it allows me to answer truthfully without people identifying me as my work
  2. the focus in the conversation changes from me to X. It is both easier and more interesting to talk about X 
  3. if I do want the conversation to be about me, I can start my answer with “I spend my time…” followed by whatever verb gets the conversation in the direction I want.

For example: Imagine the reactions I get when I answer with “I spend my time taking long walks and solving my Rubik’s cube”. 

So, next time somebody asks you “what do you do”, consider starting your answer with “I spend my time doing…”.

As for me, I feel more comfortable answering in the verb-form and try to see where the conversation goes with an unexpected answer.

Please tell me, what do you do? Share your answer in the comments!

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