Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
The soul-crushing tyranny of asking “What do you do?”
On the unbearable weight of the most dreaded question, the lightness of authentic idiosyncrasies, and the opportunity of getting to truly know somebody
Read my follow-up to this essay here.
Howdy to the 84 of us, up from 76 last time. I’m so glad you’re here.
First, a couple updates.
You may notice that this is coming to you under a ~slightly~ different name. The Comma Chronicle wasn’t quite doing it for me any more.
As I’ve continued to explore and write, it’s become clear that the right name for this space really is (and has always been) The Comma Project.
Like I wrote earlier this year, this period of exploration that has been 2023 is leading me somewhere.
In March, I wasn’t sure where.
In October, I’m still not sure where.
But I do know that the name of this whole project needs to be Comma. I can’t really describe why. It’s a name that I heard a year ago, and I knew that was it, even though I didn’t know where I was going.
I do know, however, that that writing is a part of it. Right now, it’s the anchor of the whole project. So, while I guess this technically could be a chronicle, it’s really more of a project.
So, welcome (back) to The Comma Project.
What I am trying to do with Comma isn’t about me.
It’s about ideas, and stories. Ideas and stories of leadership and connection. Of life.
It’s about you all. It’s about fueling your leadership journey, to pull you forward, further, faster.
It’s about fostering connection - bringing leaders together, to make each of our projects less lonely, and more rich, fun, and fulfilling.
So, let me know resonates, and what doesn’t. Let me know how I can better do what The Comma Project aims to do - to help fuel and connect leaders.
You can reply to any email - reach out any time.
In other news, I started a 5-week writing school last week called Write of Passage in another step towards deepening my writing practice.
In this first piece of the course, I decided to look at a question we all get asked all the time, and dig a bit into why it holds us back.
So, let’s get on to the essay.
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The soul-crushing tyranny of asking “What do you do?”
We all know it. We all fear it. We all hate it.
The most dreaded question:
What do you do?
It can also come in other variations:
What do you do for a living?
Where do you work?
What field are you in?
Sometimes, we get an even nastier version:
What are you?
Look, I know it’s not inherently an evil question. It’s an attempted shortcut to connection. It’s shorthand for “I’d like to know more of you, but I don’t know how to get there.”
It’s simple, quick, and easy.
It’s a crutch. A low-friction, low-risk way to avoid awkwardness and the risk of vulnerability in truly seeking to know somebody beneath their job title.
But the problem is that despite its apparent innocence, it crushes our soul.
Insufficient and disconnected
I’m not saying anything we don’t already know.
We know we hate that question. We lament it all the time. Hell, it’s probably even the single biggest reason that we hate “networking” at conferences, eating dinner alone at a bar, and going on first dates facilitated by the Hinge™️ algorithm.
One single question holds the power to single-handedly hijack the next 30 minutes of our lives. After that question takes the reins, anything we say in response is worth no more than a 5-second glance at our Linkedin.
Our Linkedin is the least interesting part about us, yet if we let that question take hold, we get nowhere else.
“What do you do?” sets us on a course for a surface-level expedition. Simply a live version of a glance at our online profiles.
Once we embark on our surface-level expedition, it takes what feels like a herculean effort to dive deeper into our humanity. And all too often, we end right where we started - on the surface.
“What do you do?” is more pernicious than it seems.
I arrived at a realization, gradually (over years), then suddenly (over days), that this question had permeated my entire life, far beyond the meetings with strangers where we usually find the question.
I had somehow gone from asking (and being asked) the question to living a life built around it.
I had internalized a worldview and a value system that was predicated on doing. Doing had become my north star, and it had, counterintuitively, led me further away from the very things I desired - significance and connection.
The question itself had led me to feeling insufficient, and disconnected.
Conflict and idiosyncrasies
Up until this year, I had at least one thing that squarely fit into the flow of responding to the question.
Athlete. Investment banker. Investor. Entrepreneur.
If I was feeling courageous, I’d expand my purview slightly to the other things that I loved to do.
Reader. Yogi. Skier. Cook. Oenophile. Philosopher.
I say that it took courage because at some level, these hobbies somehow felt less valid. I had this embedded belief that anything that didn’t match up with what the world viewed as worthwhile or admirable in a “productive” sense was irrelevant.
There was a conflict.
On the one hand, in many ways, my idiosyncrasies are the most important parts of who I am. This dynamic, multi-faceted curiosity is what feeds my soul and makes me feel alive.
Yet, on the other hand, I felt as if it was precisely those aspects of me that kept me from feeling a greater sense of worth.
This conflict between what I inherently loved and what I believed the world valued left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my idiosyncrasies, reverberating with a hollow sense of insufficiency and disconnectedness.
I felt as though I didn’t fit in - like a misshapen puzzle piece.
It was in this conflict that the seeds of my hatred for “What do you do?” were planted.
It took me realizing firsthand that through the myopic lens of what I did, not only were the parts of me that made me feel alive left out, but the parts that remained were manufactured.
The only thing worse than trying to fit in is realizing that, even once you do, you actually feel worse for losing the things that you love most about yourself. Talk about a bad trade.
Living this way, I was disconnected. Incongruent.
Who I was on the inside didn’t match the life I lived on the outside. In fact, there were times when I didn’t even let those parts on the inside take up space. I often shoved them back into the box.
It truly felt like a conflict. Internal warfare. I’d often feel an all-consuming sense of friction and dis-ease. At times, I felt hopeless.
I would wonder - is falling in line, jettisoning those parts of me that most made me who I was, the only way to play?
What I felt was beyond frustration. It was exasperation. There HAD to be a different way. But I didn’t see it.
I felt stuck in between two ways of being. In no man’s land.
I got tired of fighting.
So, at the end of last year, I left my last professional role to create space. I dropped my external world, and I started turning inward to make sense of it all.
It turns out, when we look, ask questions, and truly seek answers, we start to see things a bit more clearly.
I saw that I was lacking a solid foundation of self-understanding and guiding values that were intrinsic and authentic.
Lacking that internal foundation, I had let the outside world rush in and determine my value. I came to see that I had collapsed much of my sense of worth into a judgement of whether I was winning a game that someone else told me to play.
I lived a life, and, even more scary, became a person molded by what I thought mattered to the world around me. Not by what truly mattered to the me inside of me.
I had become a human doing instead of a human being.
You see, just like any skyscraper, we need a solid foundation. It’s what keeps us from collapsing in on ourselves as we’re buffeted with the winds of chaos, uncertainty, and challenge as we go through life. It’s also what allows us to build upward, and create a life that feels worthwhile. It’s what enables us to live a life of integrity.
We must build up our foundation of self-understanding, and come to embrace our idiosyncrasies, because our idiosyncrasies are the key to understanding what makes us who we are - not our answer to the question “What do you do?”
Once we embrace our idiosyncrasies, then we can turn towards the work we do. Once we build our foundation, we have a much more robust base from which to do work that’s worth doing.
We can do work that is authentic and soulful. Work that can go farther, and have greater impact, than if we try to change ourselves to fit what we think the world around us wants.
Our work should be an expression of who we are, not the other way around.
It should be an expression of who we are, not an imposition on us.
To nobody’s surprise, I keep getting assaulted with the question:
What do you do?
In the absence of a clean answer, the question makes me chuckle.
I do, on the one hand, nothing.
I don’t have to be in an office at any particular time, on any particular day. Or on Slack. Or responding to emails.
And on a bunch of other hands, I do lots of things. So many things.
I read (physical books, of course - no Kindle for me). Ask questions (often the biggest ones - the ones humans have been asking for millennia). Think. Seek answers. Write. Listen (podcasts - so many podcasts). Watch. Sit (being still has proved one of the most challenging parts). Travel, exploring both the physical world as well as the invisible world of ideas and stories. Connect with people, new and old. Cook. Move my body, run, lift, yoga, pilates, walk, ski.
So how do I answer the question?
I answer the question by sharing who I am.
I share what I’m interested in, curious and excited about, or struggling with. I share questions that I don’t know the answers to, but that I feel are important. I share that I’m exploring.
Sometimes, I even respond with what seems like a traditional answer. Sometimes, I say that I’m on sabbatical.
And, I’ve come to realize, it actually doesn’t matter how I answer it, as long as the answer is authentic. If I share what’s truly going on - the things that truly matter to me in the moment that I get asked the question - I am giving an answer to the question that I wasn’t asked, but that is the one that truly matters:
Who are you?
It wasn’t until I lacked a clear answer to the dreaded question-that-shall-not-be-named that I really began to understand the implications of asking it.
We fall into the false trap of treating people, ourselves included, as human doings instead of human beings. If we’re not careful, that question can change us, and turn us into someone we never wanted to become.
By asking “What do you do?” we make it so much harder to get to what truly matters most - connection.
We don’t really care about what somebody does.
Or, better said, we care about so much more.
We care about learning who a person is. We care about someone learning who we are. We care about knowing others and being known.
So, we must ask better questions. Questions like:
How are you feeling?
What do you believe?
What mission are you on?
What are you excited about?
What energizes you?
What are you struggling with?
Who do you want to be?
I really try to avoid asking the dreaded question.
Of course I slip up.
But I get so much more out of people and the world when I ask better questions.
I believe leaders are the people who ask the better questions. The people who seek to know and be known. The courageous. The people that take the risk of vulnerability. The people who seek connection.
It’s not easy.
But it’s worth it.
So, next time you meet with someone, new or old, what question will you ask?
I challenge you to seek to know who someone is - not simply what they do.
In fact, I’ll go even further.
I challenge you to seek to know who you are.
I challenge you to see if, when you ask yourself the question, you find that you’ve come to live a life that’s a bit too defined by what you do, instead of who you are.
Just like I had.
Read my follow-up to this essay here.
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