Don’t Ask Me What I Do, Instead Ask Me Who I Am


Don't Ask Me What I Do, Instead Ask Me Who I AmI carry a few different business cards in my purse. Because I never know what conversation I will have with a stranger at any given time.

A month ago I fetched cream for my coffee at a café in South Bend, Indiana. Naturally my family didn’t know a soul in the joint. However, by the time I returned to my table, I knew some incredibly intimate (not to mention interesting) details about the daughter of the man next to me who was reaching for a napkin: his daughter is bipolar; she was anorexic as a teenage ballerina; and she’s on some of the same meds as I am.

I ended up giving him a business card with everything but my email scratched out.

I didn’t want to have the conversation of what I do for living.

It doesn’t have anything to do with who I am.

And that’s why I get so annoyed that we have to start all of our conversations with that question.

As a country, we are obsessed with our jobs: An understatement. Our professions are central to our self-identities and our industries define who we are. We don’t even know how to vacation. It doesn’t matter that United States workers receive far fewer vacation days than other workers in other industrialized countries because American employees fail to take the time off that they have accrued. Our European friends shake their heads at that one.

I remember how refreshing it was to ask a French couple “what they did” (I plead guilty) at a swim meet for our kids.

“We are skiers,” they said emphatically. No equivocation. No insecurity. No approval-seeking.

That was who they are and were proud of being, and told me a hell of a lot more about them than had they rattled off their resumes starting with their last places of employment: “I’m an accountant with Ernst & Young.” “I’m a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton.” “I’m a program manager with Northrup Grumman.” Snore. Snore like Gramma.

My conundrum is that I wear a few different hats at the present moment, so I, in fact, don’t really know what I am. I know what my ministry or innate purpose in life is — to provide hope to those who struggle intensely with depression and other mood disorders — but it’s not related to what I do for a living as a government contractor. One pays with blessings, the other is generous with benefits. And, unfortunately in this country, most benefits are tied to your job, so while following your dream is all good and noble, you might get screwed if your appendix bursts like mine did a year ago and you need some quick medical attention. Passion, at times, has to take a back seat to medical care and other life necessities.

Upon meeting someone new, part of me hopes I will never hear the dreaded four words (what-do-you-do) because then I wouldn’t have to assess how I am going to respond — with my pragmatic communications-consultant role, or with the idealistic wanting-to-save-the-world profile.

At the least, it would be nice to delay the work conversation toward the second-half of the conversation, after the other top three questions: Where are you from? Why are you here? (conference, cocktail hour, reunion, fundraiser, Chuck E Cheese), How many kids do you have and what are their ages and when were they potty trained?

For this reason, I’ve always loved writer Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation, that went viral 15 years ago and was later published in a book. May we all share this vision one day.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing. It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain! I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it’s not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence. I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children. It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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1 Response
  1. I ‘like’-ed this post, but I don’t really like this post. I LOVE this post! I am someone who struggles with stress and depression, struggles with finding a profession that ‘fits’ me, struggles with knowing who I am. But I am so much more than that. I am strong, and I am joyful and I am deep. I see beauty in things others miss. I dance to the beat of a different drum. I never know what to say when that ubiquitous question comes up – “What do you do?” – depending on what point in my job search I am currently struggling with. I don’t think I’d do any better with the question “Who are you?”, though. That, too, is still constantly evolving.

    I love the spirit that I can see in your words. I love what you say your ‘innate purpose’ in life is. I hope that it’s okay with you if I follow your blog. I promise I won’t become a stalker (much), but I am just blown away by this inspiration! Thank you!