For the unemployed, underemployed, or miserably employed, this simple inquiry "what do you do?" can trigger a downward spiral of negativity and self-recrimination as our Inner Critic starts the incessant diatribe about our worth, value, competency, capability as parent and/or provider, contributor, citizen, and even human being. In our post-modern American society, our work and our identity are tightly coupled. There has to be a way to respond to the question "what do you do" when we are in the midst of career transition that is positive, self-validating, and helpful. I believe there is.
Whether the "what do you do?" question is posed as social chit-chat or serious inquiry, having a ready, practiced, sensible answer will benefit you in practical and self-preserving ways. This is your 10-second of shine time. Keep it conversational, light, and use a formula something like this:
State the context > State the action > State the facts. Then, if the circumstances are right, request advice, information, or recommendations (AIR). Context, Action, Facts, and maybe AIR.
Here are some examples of how this might play out in the real world when you are asked "what do you do?"
Sample Responses for Unemployed
At the moment, I am looking for a position where I can use my experience in customer service working for a good company here in Chicago. If you have any advice or ideas, I would welcome them.
At the moment, I am looking for a position where I can use my accounting degree in an entry level position with a defense contractor. If you have any advice, ideas, or recommendations, I would appreciate it.
Note the format. The "at the moment" indicates that this is a statement of a transitory context. There is no need to go into detail about how you've been job hunting for six months, blah-blah-blah. Less info at this point is better.
The "I am looking" shows proactivity, action, effort (not just sitting at home behind a computer pushing out generic resumes).
The statement of skill, experience, education is NOT a statement of a job title - which is often self-limiting. Your skills, experience, or education might qualify you for all sorts of jobs you hadn't even considered.
The openness to advice, information, or recommendations (AIR) is at the heart of networking and referrals which is where 96% of jobs are found. People generally like be asked for their opinion, it is a sign of respect.
Sample Responses for the Under-employed or Miserably Employed
I am currently working in retail sales while looking for a position where I can use my experience as a graphics designer. If you have any advice or ideas, I would welcome them.
I am currently working in an entry level marketing position at a large manufacturing company, but am looking for a position with more responsibility, perhaps with a start-up business. If you have any advice, ideas, or recommendations, I would appreciate it.
I am currently working in a secretarial position with a good company, but I don't feel it is a great fit and would like to find work where I can better use my degree in business. Any recommendations would be appreciated.
Caution. Be discrete about when, where, and with whom you share your dissatisfaction with your current employment situation. It is easier to find a job, if you have a job. Don't put your current position at risk. Also, never (never) bad-mouth your current employer (no matter how sorry they are) with someone from whom you are networking. It diminishes your status and their likelihood of endorsement.
Is having a ready answer to the question "what do you do?" a magic bullet to the perfect career position? No. However, with it the casual exchange at a sporting, school, church, or social event might be the turning point in what can be a lonely, frustrating, and fear-inducing search for good work. Be optimistic and be prepared.