“So what do you do?”

November 19, 2008


I have a joke for you that I picked up in Africa:


Q:  How do greet an American?


A:  You say: “So what do you do?” (Then shake hands.)


(The Africans find this hilarious!)


It may surprise most Americans, but a lot of foreigners regard this fully loaded question, “What do you do?” as highly amusing (a cultural fax paus, so to speak, from a young nation), or in some cases, just plain rude.  I find it odd, when I ask someone, “What do you do?” (as is custom in this country) and they respond, “I am a (lawyer, accountant, lobbyist, insert something here) but do not hold that against me!”


But yes, America—you ARE what you do and I will show you why!  Let’s assume you get 8 hours of sleep a night (which nowadays is rare!  It is more like 5 to 6 hours sleep.) And then hopefully you only spend about 8 hours a day at work (which, again, nowadays is rare—people are working more like 10 hours a day! And that is does not include the commute to and from work!)  So in a 24-hour period, you only have 8 hours left to go grocery shopping, do your laundry, commute to and from work, take your daughter to soccer practice, have sex, go on that cruise, write your magnum opus, shave a body-part, download music from the internet, learn Chinese, play Wii, and let’s not forget “American Idol”, etc.  So, yes, America, when you choose to spend a third of your life doing one thing—well, then yes, you ARE what you do!  It concerns me how many people appear to be ashamed of what they do.  Why?


But I have a better question, “If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?”  I find it shocking how many of my adult peers (ages 30 to 45) I ask this question and they have to THINK about it (and sometimes for days!)  It is rare someone screams with glee: “I am doing EXACTLY what I always wanted to do!”  Believe it or not, I have met people who were in love with quality assurance and bookkeeping (I equate these things with water-boarding torture techniques.)  And then at the same time, a real estate agent says “teacher”, a teacher says “Sailboat Captain”, a computer programmer says “documentary filmmaker”, and such.  How did this happen? 


We know the answer lies in “Life happens.”  Meaning significant other turns into spouse, babies appear, babies mean mortgage, mortgage means Suburbs, Suburbs means monster SUV which gets 2 miles to the gallon, and of course, we all need a little IKEA and Bed, Bath and Beyond to get by in this life, and our debts get bigger as our houses get bigger, and thus we get “stuck” in jobs/occupations that have no meaning for us (aside from a paycheck) and this makes us unhappy.  This unhappiness causes us to buy more crap, thinking a better car or larger entertainment system will make us more happy.  The proof that this gross consumerism is not making us any more happy, can be directly reflected in the escalating pharmaceutical industry sales of ante-depressants and the consistent sales of self-help books, as well as visits to the therapist. 



Margaret Mead, please correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot think of any culture in the history of mankind with so many therapists!  Can you imagine a Roman soldier speaking with his therapist: “You see, I feel different when I wear this plaited-skirt during battle…”  Or some therapist telling Da Vinci that he suffers from ADD?  Would Van Gogh have been such an impressive painter if he were on Prozac? 


I agree with Samuel Johnson, “The result of all ambition is to be happy at home.”  My hypothesis is that if more people did work that had special meaning (or interest) to them, or work they actually enjoyed doing, in combination with not buying so much crap, this contentment would spread into all aspects of their lives.  Just my humble opinion and by the way, I have always wanted to be a writer. 


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