How to answer “What do you do?” if you’re unemployed

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I was grateful to be reminded recently that when you’re asked “What do you do?” often the best answer isn’t to talk about your job. Here’s sage advice from Penelope Trunk on “How to answer the question, ‘What do you do?'”:

1. Understand the question.
Assume there is no hidden, evil agenda. Assume the person asking simply wants to know more about you. Of course, only people who have a good answer to the question themselves end up asking the question of others, but still, it’s a reasonable question.

2. Focus on a differentiator.
The problem with getting to know someone is that if you ask people, “What’s important to you?” you won’t learn anything. Because 90% of people will say things like family, friends, learning, being kind, or other routine things — the things, actually, that are on my refrigerator, in the first photo.

You get to know more about a person by asking how they spend their time. Because, while we all have similar goals (really, I bet the same few New Years Resolutions are made by 80% of all people) we all try to reach them in different ways….

3. Don’t focus on your job.
This is not a job interview—it’s an attempt to get to know you so the person can connect with you. So you don’t need to go straight to your job for an answer. Some people have a job that does define them. Some people do not. Once you realize you can go either way on this, you can come up with the best answer for you.

4. Focus on where you spend your time and energy.
If you work at Starbuck’s to support your marathon training, you can say you’re training for a marathon. That is interesting and will immediately spark a fine conversation. Plus, you show that you are someone worth getting to know—you set challenging goals for yourself and you work hard to meet them.

5. Focus on what you are learning.
A career is not an earning path, it’s a learning path. So if you tell someone what you are learning about now, they will not actually care what your job is. What you choose to learn, and what interests you, actually says way more about you than the type of job you have. Some people learn a lot on their jobs, some people learn more away from their jobs. Where you learn is not as important as what you learn.

If you’re unemployed, it’s especially important to consider your response to the question thoughtfully. Have something prepared so you can make the most of the opportunity when the networking occasion arises.

Automatically responding, “I’m between jobs right now,” isn’t the best way to bond with someone who might be inclined to help a new friend with tips, advice, or by sharing contacts. Instead, you might try focusing on a positive thing you’re learning or working towards while tacking on, “while I’m looking for a new position as a ___.”

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