Being unemployed, one of questions I get asked a lot is "What do you do all day?". It gets asked in different ways. The words aren't always the same. The tone can be different. Expressed as anything from curiosity to confusion to disgust.2 But its the same idea. And, inevitably, everyone I talk to will ask. Each in their own way. At first, I wasn't sure what to do with this question. I would give some answer but it was often pretty shallow. I was more concerned about the optics of the answer, about having a good answer. I wasn't really giving the question much thought. But having had to face the question with such frequency, I grew more curious about it myself. What did I do all day? It's actually a really good question. And one I am very grateful for.
I usually get asked this question by people with "jobs". Folks that go to work all day. Which, admittedly, is most people.1 There is a good reason for this as a job comes with a lot of benefits. There are of course the obvious ones like paycheck, health insurance, and free coffee6. But there are some more subtle and psychological things as well. Things like a title. Now humans are obsessed with titles for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that a title serves as a nice shorthand for how a person spends their time and how they contribute to society.3 Title can be a lot of things, it can be the actual job title, the field of study, the company, the project, or any other name that tells people "what you do". With a title, we can quickly imagine someone's day. We all know what a doctor or a lawyer does. We know their stories because we grow up learning about them. When children are asked what they want to be when they grow up they give a one word answer. A title. We know a lot about titles and so titles convey a lot of meaning. They are a handy little shortcut. And humans love shortcuts. Because we are lazy. And so when I tell people I am "working", they want to know "where", or "on what". Or any other amount of questions that effectively sum up to "what's the title".
So without a title, I have no shortcut. When others try to imagine my day, they have nothing to start with. And I think that's the reason why the questioning often sounds the way it does. Why, at first at least, it felt a bit intrusive. Starting from a blank page, I have a lot more ground to cover. There is a lot more story to catch up on because we haven't really heard it before. "Working" outside the context of a "job" doesn't even seem like a story at all. And so I am expected to account for my time in a lot more detail. Everyone else gets this question in the form of "how was your day?". But this starts with some understanding of the job already and so there are shared pieces to work with. Anyone with a job will have customers4, a boss, and some target to hit. Even if a title is unfamiliar we can understand what someone does because we all have first hand knowledge of these things. Being first principles, these are a part of any job.
A title not only tells other people what you do, it tells you what you do. With a title, you always have a pretty clear idea of what you should be doing. Maybe "editing", "selling", or "engineering". Of course, there is a lot more detail involved here. And it's in this detail that we find another major benefit to the job, structure and direction. You don't typically have to wonder "what should I be doing?"5 because there is someone to ask, some schedule to follow, some project to be working on, or maybe even simply some station to hold. You are, effectively, told what to do. Not everything is handed to you of course. You still have to do the work. And the work itself can often be self-directed and open ended. But there is still some ground to stand on. Some place to start and some direction to follow. There are hours to show up for and account for. Meetings to discuss and review. Structure and direction are good in that they offer guidance and give us something to hold on to.7
And so without a job to give me these things I tried to create them for myself. The original question has slowly unfolded into it's more basic elements. And it has been in working with these smaller pieces that I've found the more productive answers. Who would I want my boss to be? Who do I want my customers to be? What do I want to work for? Is there a title that sums these all up? These, I think, are really the questions I've been trying to answer. And finding these is really what the "work" so far has been.
It's at this point (the end) that you'll likely notice I have just come up wiht more questions. I haven't actually answered the question of "what I do all day" at all. Which, first, if you've been paying attention you'll know isn't true. Second, I do intend to answer the question very soon. I'm as eager for answers as anyone else.
Except for my parents, who are retired. Hi, Mom! ↩
Sometimes even indignation and self-righteousness. But this is less common. ↩
Even those "retired" people. We know they spend their days doing crosswords and gardening. ↩
Not everyone has worked in customer service, where this takes on a whole new meaning. If they had, customer service might not be as terrible a job as it is. If you don't know why it's terrible, it's because of the customers. And if you didn't know that, it might be because of you. ↩
At a good job at least. ↩
You'll notice in all of these that I don't mention self fulfilment. This is unrelated. It can be there or not be there regardless of the job. ↩
As an aside, I often found these exact things dangerous for me. And was often troublesome in my last job. I sometimes found I could go into work, not really accomplish anything at all but still have a vague sense of getting "work" done. The title, the structure, and the direction often stood in the way of me seeing that I wasn't really doing what I wanted with my time. ↩