Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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What Do You Do?

Have you ever been asked this question? Of course you have. Have you ever wondered what you were really being asked? Well, if you’re like me, probably not.

In Cleveland when you ask someone where they went to school they will invariably tell you where they went to HIGH SCHOOL; everywhere else in the country if someone has gone to college they will tell you what COLLEGE they attended.  It turns out that the question “what do you do?” has a similar geographic pattern. In most of the country “what do you do?” is shorthand for “what kind of work do you do?” or “what’s your job?”, but in California it means “what do you do when you are NOT at work?” You work every day to allow you to do what?

It’s a kind of proxy for “who ARE you?”

I’m an eye surgeon. That’s my day job. Like most doctors there’s a lot of “who am I?” wrapped up in my job, kind of an occupational hazard. We spend so much time in school and in our training, and we are so inwardly focused on attaining our eventual job, that it is natural for us to have a difficult time separating who we are from what we do for work. Indeed, many doctors of all shapes and sizes really don’t do anything other than doctor stuff; medicine is both their vocation and their hobby.

Think about it. Recall the last time you asked someone “what do you do?” or answered someone when they asked you. For most of us the knee-jerk response is to tell someone about our job. It’s kinda refreshing to ask that question in California, to eavesdrop in a restaurant or a bar or at a huge fitness competition/festival like I did last week. The answers were much more in tune with what people think of themselves, what they see when they look in the mirror and their true self looks back.

To be sure there was plenty of “I’m a firefighter” or “I’m a lawyer”, but there was also a ton of “I surf” or “I climb mountains.” I heard a lot of “I’m a full-time Mom”, which is both identity and occupation (during the earlier child-rearing days in my house my wife described herself as a “nurturer of human potential”!). Because I was attending the Crossfit Games, an international competition/festival for the “Sport of Fitness”, I also heard over and over again, “Dude, I’m a Crossfitter!” What we choose to do when we are not going about the business of food, shelter, and clothing says more about who we are than what job we have at the moment.

Imagine that you have won a lottery that removes all of the pressures of grocery shopping or paying the rent  or covering pretty much any of your needs  and most or your wants for the rest of your life, and NOW think of your answer to the question “what do you do?” Would you answer it the same way? It’s rather liberating, isn’t it? Almost thrilling. What do I DO? I play this game all the time as a way to emphasize to myself that being an eye surgeon is what allows me to have done all of the things that make up who I am to date. Husband and partner , and Dad, make up the foundation upon which everything else has been layered, but that leaves lots of room to think about what I do.

So here’s a little bit of homework! The next time you ask someone “what do you do?” and they tell you what their job is, say something like “no, no, no…what do you DO? What does going to work let you DO?” And be ready for the next time someone asks you the same question. Do my little thought experiment above; “win” a lottery and think about who you really are if you are allowed to be that person. What would your answer be then? And if you think about it, why can’t that be the same answer now? Or at least a part of the answer now. Isn’t the answer to the question “what do you do?” so important that you should be trying to do that now, even without winning a lottery?

For whatever it’s worth every time I play that little mind game I still end up working as an eye surgeon for some part of my time. I’m good at being an eye surgeon, and it feels good doing something you do well. But what do I DO?

Dude, I’m a Crossfitter!

11 Responses to “What Do You Do?”

  1. July 16th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Miss. t says:

    My answer to your homework is this; if I won the lottery I would attempt to use the money to make a difference in the lives of families in children. I also kinda want to pay off my kid at St. Ed’s this year and give him millions for John Carroll next year and the little one a full ride to Case as she wants!

    In my former life I was a child care center administrator and and after my program at a college closed I was left asking myself that question, ” What do I do now?” I thought it was all I knew how to do. Little did I know that my many years of experience and knowledge translated well into a social services agency and I am once again helping children and families- not in the “hands on” way I had become so accustomed to, but none the less in a meaningfull and engaging way. It’s what I was designed to do; feel like I make difference with families. It was absolute hell losing a career after 24 years, but the lessons I learned; never make work more important than family, and never become too complacent with any one situation have now become my cornerstones in life.

    So, What do I do? I do what I am supposed to do, what I am good at; or so I am told!

  2. July 16th, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Mark Lanza says:

    Hey Doc,

    I recall reading an article years ago that stated people typically ask that question of others within 60 seconds of meeting them. It’s more prevalent among males, but women ask it as well.

    Perhaps we’ve let our occupations identify ourselves instead of them simply being a means to an end ($). Our jobs take up so much of our time and our thoughts, that we see everything else as secondary to the occupation. Sad, really. You wrote something recently that discussed the various roles we play in life (brother, father, son, husband, friend, etc). Interesting that when we lose one of these roles due to the passing of someone close to us, how significant that “lost” role becomes. We’ve been orphaned, so to speak, and we quickly remember who we are.

    Oh, and that article I mentioned earlier? It suggested to the reader to wait five minutes upon meeting someone before asking the question. Find out something about the person first. Find out who they are.

    Good stuff ~ thanks for sharing.

  3. July 17th, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Beth White says:

    There are times in our lives where the what do you do gets overshadowed by what do you do for others, and what do you do for work. I went to school to be a nurse, and really intended to work with pregnant teens. I still don’t do that. I got married and I do that well! I did a lot of things for others and really not so much for the core of who I am as I went through the parenting years(I do love being a mom). With my last child looking at colleges I am beginning to explore what I do more often. I ride horses! The freedom, the total body work out, the warm nuzzles and the soft shoulder are what I do for me.

  4. July 18th, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    The Heir says:

    I asked a guy last week at the ranch that I work at what he does, and he said “I’m a hiker and a rock climber.” He lives in Colorado but is from California, and his response caught me off guard, but makes sense now! I’m a teen counselor/Wrangler on a ranch in Colorado and am about to turn 21. I don’t have a career yet (or one in mind for that matter) so I am rarely asked “what do you do?” but I suppose I would have to say I’m a skiier and a horseback rider. Sounds like the life (career opportunity? in my dreams).
    -Dan W

  5. July 18th, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    The luckiest people I know, and the happiest, are the people who manage to make a living at “what they do”! That would be a wonderful goal, a very worthwhile journey.

    I’m tickled you are reading Random Thoughts, and even more that you commented!

  6. July 18th, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Jeff says:

    I’m a CrossFitter. Don’t work a day in my life.

  7. July 18th, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    darrellwhite says:

    Even better, you’re a Crossfit COACH!

  8. July 22nd, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Apolloswabbie says:

    Jeff’s my role model.

    What do I do? My Mom’s a licenced clinical therapist, my dad’s a pediatrician, my brother’s an ER doc, my sister’s an attorney, my sister in law’s a nurse, my wife’s a Feldenkrais Practitioner (helps people move with less effort).

    I’m the black sheep in the family, I’m a professional killer. That joke usually works well if I happen to be on stage with family present.

    I think ‘what do you do?’ often means, or may have one day meant, ‘how much do you matter?’ or ‘how significant are you?’ It seems to me, perhaps only the circles of my life that matter to me, that our ‘status’ matters less in 2009 than it did 20 or 30 years ago – am I wrong about that? Is it just in my circles of friends?

    The discussion reminded me of the old proverb, “blessed is the man who knows his place in the world.”

    Which is probably why Jeff is my role model!

  9. February 17th, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    new myspace proxy says:

    Hey man I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to create something worth reading . I am all over the internet and I see so much useless junk that is just written for the sake of putting something fresh on their site . It takes passion to create good stuff, thanks for caring.

  10. November 4th, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Narcissistic says:

    Nice post, keep it coming. Meg

  11. November 6th, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    free ringtones says:

    Great blog 9/10! Bookmarked 🙂

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