It’s this simple: expressing the value of who you are + what you do = Priceless.
I have to be honest right here, right now. I hate the question: so, what do you do for a living?
In fact, I sometimes avoid people just so they won’t ask me that question. Because I’m more than what I do and so are you.
Philosophical differences aside, this question can be incredibly complex for creative people who are often in work situations that are difficult to describe.
For example, saying I’m a writer doesn’t say much. There are all kinds of writers out there and many of them have completely different goals and ways of being in the world than I do. Of course, I can’t expect the average person to realize this. But I still like representing myself to the best of my ability.
And others want me to as well, so they often follow-up with: so, what do you write?
Well, like a lot of writers I write all kinds of “stuff.” There’s some fiction and poetry and non-fiction and blogs . . .
For a writer, this is not the most articulate answer I can imagine.
Then you have to contend with the second follow-up along the lines of: well, have you ever been published?
The implicit assumption is that if you haven’t been published you’re not a real writer or creator.
That one’s a killer (and it makes me kind of mad).
But it’s not an unfair question per se. Still, let’s not give them a chance to go there by leading the communication in a confident way that clearly expresses the value of our work and field.
And we need to do this, no matter what stage of professional development we are at.
The same kind of situation applies to many creative people, no matter what medium they work in.
I had this conversation just last night by a guy “in computers.” We kind of spoke different languages but I’m the one who had to translate. He could tell me clearly who he worked for and what programs he used. He could tell me what his hire date was and how much money he earned.
Everything was so blissfully straight-forward. I envied him a little.
I could only tell him what projects I was working on, what I was learning, and what I hoped happened to them eventually.
Of course I didn’t because it wasn’t that kind of conversation (if you know what I mean). Why? Because
we were having a conversation originating in the career brain. The career brain is located very close to, and to the right of, the reptilian brain. The career brain is concerned with survival and security. It prefers resumes, bulleted lists, clear job descriptions, and dental benefits.
It doesn’t like risk or conjecture. And when we stake a career on creating, we risk.
And we all have a career brain. But it often expresses very differently for creatives. And we need to respect that.
And respect starts here with you + me. We’re in this together.
You know . . . I’m not completely comfortable in this world yet – the world where you have to work and value what you do before anyone else does.
Think about it: in order to actually create something, you have to value it and yourself enough to sit down, take the time, and create it. You have to do that, not knowing if or when it will be received into the world. You have to constantly confront fears and insecurities. And when people question you, you have to own this state of grace as your “career path.”
It’s almost too much.
But here’s the thing: as an artist and creator it’s my job to communicate the value of what I do effectively to anyone interested enough to ask. And to do it boldly and confidently.
So, inspired by Alexandra Franzen, I created this little script below to help me do just that. And if you want, you can borrow it.
Before We Go On, Here are Some Tips to SUPERCHARGE Your Script
- Keep your message and awareness focused on your value and the value of your field.
- Pre-determine what the top 3 projects are that you want to tell people about.
- Carry your business cards with you & break them out as needed.
A 3-STEP SCRIPT for Answering The Question “What Do You Do For A Living?”
- I’m a ______________. (artist, writer, musician, blogger, freelancer, etc.) This tells them what you “do” in simple, straight-forward, confident manner.
- Right now, my main three projects are _________________ , _________________, and _______________. This keeps the focus on your projects and themes, not conventional systems of employment. It validates your method of working and educates people about it at the same time.
- I’m planning __________________(to publish, put out an album, launch my website, enter a program, apply to a gallery, ETC.) in ________________ (date). Okay, this is optional but not a bad idea. This communicates that your work will go into the market and be valued – just like any other work. This, more than anything, will be what communicates the value of what you do. Likewise, if you are currently doing these things with your current projects, put all of this into the present tense.
Here’s what my script might look like:
I’m a writer. Right now, my main projects are writing freelance articles, finishing the first draft of my novel, and building my poetry manuscript. I’m planning to publish the novel and poetry manuscript within the next two years.
Now I know that’s better than mumbling something about writing . . . and picking my fingernails under the table wondering what to say next!
Now, I’m off to work on my personal script so I will be able to confidently express my value to anyone who asks in the future.
I would love to hear what you think about this script, or about how you respond to the “what do you do for a living” question.
And remember: What You Do. It Matters. And Not Just in Your Head.
Yep, Cynthia. I love this. In fact, I spend a whole class period each semester w/students talking about how to handle this. It takes such a long time to call one’s self a writer for many folks, and then it gets instantly devalued (unintentionally usually) by people who just don’t know. But it’s the same w/wanna-be writers. I’ve been teaching writing almost 25 years now, and I’m always astonished at how many think they just need a little help w/their skills and they’ll be making a zillion dollars. No awareness of the art & craft of story — and this is from folks who want to write. So, we can’t expect much more from people in other fields. 🙂 Before I published anything, I used to make up magazine names (I am a fiction writer, after all) in answer to the question “where have you published”. I found it rude (though again, I don’t think it’s intended as rude), so making up a few names stopped the toxic thread of conversation. Once I had a list of actual publications, it didn’t necessarily get better, either. Then they think you’re super rich. Ha. Wonderful post!
Love the idea of making up magazine names! So bold.
I always find that I have to differentiate between the writing I do to make money and writing like fiction and poetry. People always ask something like, “But what do you do for money?” It kind of baffles me.
Cass, they have no reference point. Most people only understand a traditional employment structure. The questions can be invasive and rude but I try to look at it as a way of them asking us to help them understand.
Hello Cynthia! Great post, and I love Alexandra Franzen. I love this script for creatives. I think it’s a great way to answer the “what do you do?” question, and if the person you’re speaking with is interested in learning more, it makes it easy for them to ask you more questions based on the information you’ve given them about your projects.
I’ve done so much business networking in the past couple of years that it’s easy for me to clearly express what I do…but then, I provide services to women in business, so it’s one of those things that’s pretty clear.
On the subject of “you’re not a real writer if you haven’t published”…hey, that’s what self publishing is for! I have a number of projects in the works for next year, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be self publishing rather than looking for a publisher.
Holly, thanks for your input on the script! I definitely think that if you’ve self-published, you’ve published. No ifs, and, or buts about that one. So you’re right — this is always an option.