These days, it only takes five little words to make me straight-up panic.
“So, what do you do?”
I did not notice how often people ask this well-intended question two years ago when I had a simpler answer: “I’m a sixth grade teacher.” A teacher, respectable. A sixth grade teacher, easy conversation starter. Without saying much more, my status in the world was out there. People knew I didn’t make a bunch of money, and that I probably worked hard at earning it (both very true). It was a very comfortable life in the world of small talk for my husband — an analyst for a company everyone in our city knew by name — and me.
Then, a little over a year ago, we quit these jobs, sold most of our possessions and traveled the country for 12 months. We made no money, had no home, and our small talk severely lacked any current pop culture references. But at least we had a great story.
“So, what do you do?”
We are travelers! We are visiting all 59 national parks in the country this year! We don’t take showers! Ha! Travelers, enviable. All 59 parks, easy conversation starter. People could still place our status: well-off enough to have saved money for a trip like this, but not currently raking in any kind of money. We still sat comfortable in our adventurous little spot in the world, never embarrassed by this question.
And then, in August, after 12 months of camping, hiking, and driving around the country, we came home.
Although there have been several oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life thoughts, Cole and I both successfully hit the ground running. Cole began an MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis. (Top 20 program, impressive. Business school, easy conversation starter. Status in the world swiftly secured.) And then there’s me.
“So, what do you do?”
The desperate justification in my answer is clear: “We’re still getting our feet under us. I’m substitute teaching right now, but it’s actually a really good setup. It gives me time to start working on my graphic design. It’s flexible, and actually pretty good money. I really enjoy getting back into the classroom. But I don’t want to do it forever.”
Status firmly established, but not in a good way. From a 30-second explanation, people know that I have no life-long career even close to lined up. There’s a good chance I might not ever make a bunch of money.
In my head, I know everything is okay. The truth is, we’re doing perfectly fine. We are housesitting for family friends, we share one car, and we are very intentional about the things we buy. The income I make from substitute teaching pays the bills and then some.
I want to — and sometimes do — explain this to whoever asked me the question, to reassure them that I’m being responsible and smart. I’m not a dumb floundering millennial! But by then, the conversation has usually pivoted to a more hopeful topic.
Because guys, I do a lot more than substitute teach.
I am on Day 28 of a 30 day online yoga practice. I can do a full headstand, want to see?
Cole and I went mountain biking last weekend in one of our favorite state parks.
My best friends and I joined an indoor volleyball league and it’s been so wonderful to live near them again.
I’ve been getting back into calligraphy and hand lettering. Watch me write your name all fancy.
My taste in music has dramatically improved with the reintroduction of internet.
I’m writing a book.
At least half of my diet consists of fresh delicious vegetables now, because for a year we only consumed them through baby carrots, canned tomatoes, and occasional onions.
I drink my coffee black.
I’m still obsessed with the TV show Survivor, and I never miss an episode (17 years, still going strong!)
I’ve added so much weight to my back squat in the last month.
I am trying — and sometime struggling — to reconnect with my Christian spiritual foundation, and my progress has left me feeling freer and more sure in my choices than ever.
I started a podcast.
My new favorite hangout spot is the Kirkwood Public Library.
I’m planning a trip to Patagonia in a couple months.
None of these things make me any money. (In fact, many of them cost me money). But they do contribute to my identity far more than my job does. When my husband and I left normalcy and traveled for a year, we did not realize our outlook on the future would change so dramatically. It has. We don’t want the same things as we did a year ago. Instead of owning a beautiful large home, we now aim to live in a home that is very small and simple (and still beautiful, because nesting is something I love and value). Rather than going back into a career that exhausted and defeated me every day, I simply want to own my time.
Most importantly, I want to live according to my values — connection to family, self-growth, solitude, contribution to community — not society’s norms.
Maybe that will look like going to work every day. Maybe that will look like building a home business. Maybe that will look like developing a passive income stream. For a while, it will likely look like a combination of these things.
If it really matters to you how someone else goes to work, then ask “so, what do you do?” If it really matters to you how much money someone makes, then ask “so, what do you do?” If you want to perpetuate — even innocently — the status-affirming standard routine of social gatherings everywhere, then ask “so, what do you do?”
But if you want to learn more about a person’s true identity and values, don’t ask that question.
Instead, ask about things that matter. Ask about hobbies, passions, goals, favorite state parks, taste in music, opinion on the new Harry Potter book (meh), or literally anything else. It’s not as comfortable, but it will surely result in a much better conversation.
So, what do you like to do?