Hi, I'm Sergei 👋

CTO, Entrepreneur

Sergei Shilin

Hi, I'm Sergei 👋

CTO, Entrepreneur

“What do you do?”

8 minutes
January 28, 2024

Here’s why this is a terrible question, and why you should stop asking it.

I was that person. I used to ask this question, a lot. It was part of my normal small talk, as it is for many people across North America. A cheap way to learn about a person, their hobbies and interests. I stopped recently, when I no longer had a traditional job to use as a placeholder for this answer. Here’s why you should, too.

Not long ago, I went to a birthday party of a friend, and this questions popped up a lot. Shortly after I arrived, a tall handsome guy approached me with a long-time familiar opener, “So, what do you do, Sergei?”

“Erm, many things”, I thought, then rambled — “Most days I enjoy my life. I go outside and walk sometimes. I am also on a climbing team here in Montreal” — right? That’s already a huge part of my day, so might as well throw it in!

“Cool! But I mean, what do you do professionally?”

“Ah! I am, erm, an entrepreneur?”

As the conversation shortly seemed to be over due to my partner’s slight disappointment, another friend of a friend walked by.

“Hey, I am Christina”

“Hi, Christina, I am Sergei”

“What do you do, Sergei?”

Cultural nuances

English is a weird language. I fancy it for its simplicity. It’s easy to learn — which helps its adoption across the world. But its simplicity is also its limitation. Russian, for example, doesn’t have this phrase in the same sense as English does. You could ask “what are you doing now” — “что ты делаешь” —, or “what do you study” — “на кого ты учишься” —, or “what do you do for work” — “кем ты работаешь” —, or none of the above, which is oftentimes the case. You could even ask, “do you study or do you work?”. Depending on the context, either may be considered a rather odd question to ask. Despite that, it shows a clear intention, unlike the English “what do you do” — as shallow and as deep as the person answering it prefers — that leaves lots of room for ambiguity.

But above all, “what do you do” is an essential part of a small talk — “a polite and standard conversation about unimportant things”, as Wikipedia would describe it — and it is absent in many other cultures. It took me years getting used to it and all its nuances. To me, as an outsider, small talk is like discussing something that doesn’t matter. Why even bother in the first place? But, unfortunately, people care, and so did I have to adjust.

Overworked culture

As an answer to the “what do you do” question, it’s hard to think of anything but our jobs. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, most of us have forty hours a week to fill with corporate nonsense. Sixty for some. Eighty — gosh, people, please! — for others. We come home to eat, shit, and sleep. We can’t find fifteen minutes to play with our children, and we don’t remember the last time we had sex with our partner.

Work, sleep, rinse, repeat.

In modern world, we built the society around work. Begin from a birth of a little boy. Shortly after he starts walking and, maybe, composing full sentences, his parents send him to preschool. Why? So he gets ready for school. Why? So he studies for the university application. Why? So he gets a good degree and learns a profession. Why? So he lands a good job. Why? So he could pay his bills and, of course, taxes. Why? …

Rewind a history tape sixty years from now. My grandparents live in rural Russia. They raise a couple dozen of chicken, five cows, two horses, and a few goats. They work a good amount of the day, mostly being outside with the flock or doing house chores. They sell eggs and milk, and that’s how they pay their bills. Also, they didn’t waste seven years of life in university. They didn’t go to preschool, and they barely finished six years of education.

Today? Today, we don’t even have time for house chores.

We romanticize long hours as a symbol of status and success. To leave the office after the manager means a higher chance of promotion. Means more money. Means going on a luxurious vacation, so we can post an Instagram story of an avocado toast with crunchy sesame seeds, an overpriced london fog, and a ridiculously shallow infinity pool transitioning into the ocean in the background. Only to get back to the office and grind through the other 355 days of the year.

As a result, we are an exhausted, sleep-deprived culture.

Lack of play

Having to work the majority of the day leaves us with little time for play. By play, I don’t mean video games, or any sort of games really. I mean play as in children-like play. As kids, we engage in all sorts of joyful activities, from purposeless screaming, or running away from the biggest Godzilla in the world — most likely our dad — to building sand castles, sitting in pure silence, devoting our full attention to the two pieces of a wall that don’t seem to stick together.

As adults, our play evolved, but it still stayed exactly that, play. We go in nature. We visit friends. We jog in the neighboring park with our dog. We knit. We sow. We collect pieces of Lego to then build a full set and sell it on eBay. We do many things.

Except we don’t.

Brene Brown studied, amongst many other cool things, — seriously, go look her up! — the importance of play on human development. She found that lack of play causes increased levels of depression and aggression. Some studies showed a direct correlation with violence. But her witty sense of humor is what makes her not a great researcher but an outstanding one.

Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as time spent without purpose. To me this sounds like the definition of an anxiety attack. I feel behind if I’m not using every last moment to be productive, whether that means working, cleaning the house or taking my son to baseball practice.

Play is essential for creating space for thoughts. It’s time when ideas are born. To me as an entrepreneur it reads, it’s the most important time.

Job as our identity

With work taking the majority of the day, it’s easy to associate one’s self with whatever they do. “I am a carpenter”, or “I am a lawyer”, “I am a neurosurgeon”.

What we forget, however, is that putting such a label on ourselves strips the necessity to ask additional, deeper questions, because this label gives, presumably, a full and complete description of who we are.

“I am a neurosurgeon” implies, “I wake up at 4 am, I go to the hospital and put my scrub on. Sometimes I come home. Sometimes I come home the same day.”

By processing hundreds, if not thousands, of these labels, we deliberately trained our brains to distinguish “interesting jobs” — photographer, spacecraft engineer — from the “boring” ones — cashier, lawyer —, “demanding” jobs — neurosurgeon, bank broker — from “lazy” — video game tester, food critic. What it failed to do is unfold the complexity of human nature, hidden by forty hours of intense, meaningless labor.

A plumber who is a semi-professional saxophonist that makes a living by fixing your clogged pipes? He comes home, puts a 3-piece suite on, and hits the bar to play the gig with his jazz band. He did this for the last 30 years, and he is an extraordinary musician. But you asking him “what do you do” — implying, “how do you make money” — doesn’t give him a choice to talk about what he truly is.

So, “what do you do?”

Just don’t. Train yourself to never ask this question. Probe deeper. “What is your day like?” is already ten times better. Ask quality questions, not lazy questions.

When going on a date, I like to follow a framework called “36 questions to fall in love”. And while you don’t have to fall in love with everybody you see, questions from that list make you a person to have a meaningful conversation with. People love talking about their hobbies, so ask away! Do they like to travel? Where did they go last year? What did they see? Who did they travel with? Ask about their family. Do they have siblings? Older, younger? What about a show they watched recently? Not a “watcher”? Do they read books? What kind? — “No way, that’s my favorite genre!”

As for “what do you do”, I still have a socially acceptable answer that I am only half-ashamed of — I’m working on it!. “I am an entrepreneur” — pause here to see if it needs further explanation, and if it does — “but my background is in computer science”. This makes me very important and mysterious at the same time. Because why not? You got what you asked for. But for whoever knows me a bit better, I am both that and neither of it at the same time.

I am more than just a label, and if you really want to know me, you’ll have to do better than sticking it on me.