21 August 2013

What Do You Do?

I hear it immediately: the hesitation.

The eternal Washington, D.C., question hangs in the thick, swampy summer air like a funhouse specter: "what do you do?" The specter follows the underemployed from networking events to backyard barbecues, from baseball games to Saturday nights-on-the-town. It contaminates the water supply, slips through the useless charcoal filter on the overpriced pitcher, and permeates the bodies of all who travel in certain circles. If you stick around long enough, if you do what you do, you parrot it back in perma-loop, second only to "hello" as the interpersonal greeting of choice.

You are intended to have your response/defense ready for the quick draw: I do something important. I make policy. I break policy. I serve drinks but I intern at somewhere special. I am a student. I have started my own business. I rule a small island nation.

Unemployment and underemployment pull back your sharp-edged words and your confidence. They put you in a conversational de-militarized zone. Off limits.

You are not allowed to be looking or uncertain. Not from a place of weakness. If you are -- which we all are at all times in this town, unless we have submitted to stagnation or retirement -- you are not encouraged to admit this to anyone but close friends. D.C. places a palpable stigma on the professionally undead, for they are known to want. They hunger for job leads, contacts, help, insider info, something, anything, please. They email regularly to tell you they still exist.

So what do I do? I reconsider my career path. I rely heavily on my support network. I write new songs. I visit the museums. I bicycle to Rockville, or to Falls Church, or simply through the National Mall at night. I consider moving to another city. I have lunch with my mother and grandmother. I fantasize about an end to the hesitation. I attend free concerts and outdoor film showings. I interview for jobs. I network extensively. I grab the $5 tickets to the baseball game. I invent new, creative cocktails in my kitchen. This is my life, and I am living it.

I feel it immediately: the hesitation. The desperation. The embarrassment. The scramble to justify existence for this networking event, this backyard barbecue, this over-loud bar, this self-important city.

"I am figuring out what comes next," I offer meekly. "So, what do you do?"


Anonymous said...

"What do you do?" is one of my least favorite things about the city. It is something that doesn't happen everywhere else. But I don't let it undermine what I'm doing or knock my confidence. I've found my answer to work pretty well, and, at least in part, apply to you as well.

"I'm recently back from travelling around the world. Now that I'm here, I'm taking the time to settle in and make sure I get into something I'm passionate about and not just the first thing to come along."

The follow-up questions you'll get are all good ones. Where did you go? Why? What are you passionate about? It derails the contest over who's job is more important and you set the terms. And it eliminates the impression that you'll be asking for a handout by showing you are taking control of what you're doing.

Jeff said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

In practice, I have been using a similar response over the past 5 months: "I recently returned to Washington following a year in South Africa --" and people typically stop me right there to dive into the what and the why.

When cornered, there is some recognition that These Things Take Time. But These Things must also be coated in the right type of coating, lest they not be heard at all.

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