Why “So What Do You Do?” is the Hardest Question to Answer

January 22, 2020

It’s an unseasonably cool night in May and I find myself at home, alone, with nothing to do.

That’s right. Nothing to do!

(This must be a fantasy story, you think. Who has nothing to do?)

On this particular night, both kids were out of the house, the dog had been walked, the errands had been run and most notably, I had no leftover work from the day.

No overflowing email inbox. No requests from colleagues for a “minute” of my time that would inevitably take an hour.


That’s because, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I have no job.

Two weeks earlier, I’d given notice at the company where I worked for nearly 10 years, leaving behind the industry I’d worked in for more than 20.

And I quit without having another job. Without a safety net, or any real plan.

Work just wasn’t working for me anymore. I had to walk away.

Depending on who you asked, I was either courageously following my passion into the future… Or I had just seriously flushed my entire career down the toilet. There’s a fine line between courage and foolishness.

But on this night, finally… for the first time, really ever… I had what I’d wanted: The time and space and quiet to just think about what might come next.

To think about those important questions.

What do I want to do for the rest of my life?

Who do I want to be?

I’m at a crossroads between here and there with really big decisions to make.

From the openness of this “nothingness” comes the opportunity to create something new and meaningful!

The rest of my life can start right NOW.

How do I want to spend it?

So, I did what any normal woman would do in that situation.

I decided to make chili.

Meat dish 1618906 why "so what do you do? " is the hardest question to answer

A Stock Photo Of Someone’S Professionally Made Chili. Not Mine.

Yes, chili.

It seemed to make sense at the time.

Everything else – all those big decisions I needed to make – could wait.

Chili I could do.

Chili is easy! No real recipe needed. Just take whatever ingredients you have on hand – meat, tomatoes, onions…

Toss them together. Give it a stir. And let it simmer.

I busied myself with prep work. To make chili, I have to do my least favorite kitchen task. Chopping onions. I always end up in tears.

Cooking cutting cutting board hands 244395 why "so what do you do? " is the hardest question to answer

Chopping Onions Always Makes Me Cry… (Not My Hand, Or My Onions…)

To make chopping those onions easier, I could use the expensive new kitchen device from Sur La Table that I’d been gifted. The mandolin slicer. Cuts perfectly sliced vegetables of any thickness, quick and easy to use.

At least… I thought it was easy to use. Which is why I didn’t bother to read the instructions.

(Oh, it’s not a fantasy story, you realize. It’s a horror story. Why yes, yes it is…)

Three swipes in and I realize I’d thought wrong. I cut not just the onion but the tip of my finger, badly enough that I let a howl that causes the dog to come running.

I wrap my hand in a dishtowel, frantically search for a Band-aid, but it’s bleeding too much.

I’m filled with such regret. If only I could go back in time to make a better decision! I’d read the safety precautions… or Google “how to use a mandolin slicer”… or skip the chili and order in a pizza.

Instead, I’m in my kitchen. Alone. Bleeding. And starting to feel a little woozy.

I call my husband Gerry, frantic, but I get his voice mail.

So, I phone a friend. My friend Nathalie. She’d know what to do. A year earlier, she’d had her own onion-chopping incident that wound up requiring hand surgery.

Nathalie is amazingly calm on the phone.

“No, you don’t need to go to the E.R.,” she tells me. “Fingers bleed a lot. Just keep pressure on it and hold it above your heart. It might take a while, but the bleeding will eventually stop.”

I consider this. And then decide to call another friend.

I call my organized friend, Ari. She says “Look, you’re not going to want to go to the E.R. later if it doesn’t stop bleeding. You should go to the local urgent care. They close in 15 minutes, but I’ll call and tell them you’re coming. Can you get yourself there? I’ll meet you.”

I weigh my two choices, thankful to have two friends, one who also can’t cut things and the other who has nothing better to do than accompany me to urgent care.

That seems the better option. I leave another message for Gerry, apologizing for the Crime Scene Investigation in the kitchen, bloody fingerprints on the walls, raw meat on the counter, remnants of duct tape…

(Yes, duct tape. How else could I drive myself to urgent care without first duct-taping the dish towel to my hand?)

Ari’s already there when I arrive. She fills out my paperwork while I’m escorted to an exam room in the back.

The physician on duty can’t possibly be a real MD because he looks like he’s about 15. But I guess that’s what you get when you show up a few minutes before closing. The only staff member left is Doogie Howser.

Doogie starts to unwrap the dishtowel and I ask to lie down. To get me to relax while he examines my finger, he asks me a series of generic questions.

“Where do you live?”

“How did this happen?”

And then he says, “So, what do you do?”

And that’s when I start to cry.

(Yep. Like I said, chopping onions always makes me cry…)

Maybe it was from the pain in my finger. Or the stress of the situation. Or maybe it was because, for the first time in my life, I have no idea how to answer that question.

What do I do?

Nothing. I do nothing.

Do you mean what I used to do?

Because I used to do something. A lot of it, in fact. And I did it pretty well. Until I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore.

Or do you mean what I’m going to do?

Because I’m going to do a lot of things. I have goals and dreams and plans… I just need to figure out what they are.

So, nothing. Right now, I do nothing.

I mean, I’m just a mom.

I can’t even believe I’m saying that. “Just a mom.” I never wanted to be “just a mom.” Like you cease to exist or something except in relation to your kids. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. And there’s nothing wrong with being “just a mom” if that’s what you choose to do. It’s the most important job out there! It’s just that… I thought I’d be so much more. I thought I’d be running a network by the time I was 30. Or 40. Or 45.

But that didn’t happen. And I don’t even think I’d want it if it did.

What do you do when all the goals and dreams and plans you had didn’t work out? And all the things you thought you wanted you no longer want and now you have to create all new goals and dreams and plans?

And why do we ask that question, anyway? What does it matter what I do? Does that make someone else who does more somehow better than someone who does nothing?

I mean, even people who do nothing are doing something. I make chili. Poorly. Obviously.

(Yes, I say all of this out loud…)

I stop long enough to realize I’m lying on a roll of paper in a sterile exam room, with a bloody duct-taped dishtowel by my side, in a generic urgent care center on Route 44 in central Connecticut. I have a degree in communications and 24 years of media experience under my belt. I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews and yet I can’t give one coherent answer to that simple and often-asked question, “What do you do?”

Dr. Doogie is looking at me, perplexed, as if he’s questioning his original diagnosis. The patient presents with a cut on her finger. Upon closer examination, it’s clear there’s something much more broken inside of her. How can we suture her back together? What’s the process for healing?

I feel bad for him, actually. He can’t be much older than my son.

“I’m fine,” I tell him, telling that lie that angry but well-behaved middle-aged women use to keep everyone else comfortable. “I’m fine. How’s my finger?”

The finger, it turns out, is fine. It was more surface cut that deep wound. Nathalie was right. Fingers bleed a lot. If I had kept pressure on it and kept it above my heart, the bleeding might have stopped on its own. I don’t even need stitches. They can do amazing things with glue these days.

To protect the finger and allow it to heal, Dr. Howser wraps my hand tightly with so much gauze that I’m forced to walk around with my middle finger up for a week.

Finger 1 why "so what do you do? " is the hardest question to answer

A Recreation Of Flipping The Bird… To Everyone.

It seems somewhat appropriate.

It’s my giant F.U. to a world that demands I account for my time. That insists I define myself with a single vocation.

With my finger bandaged and sticking straight up, I can’t do much. Typing is awkward, so I can’t write. I can’t cook, not that I’d want to anyway.

The mandolin slicer goes to the back of a drawer. I haven’t used it since.

I have made chili though, many times.

Nathalie gave me a great hack –  substituting frozen pre-chopped onions. They work just as well and no one knows the difference.

As for everything else?  Well, there’s no clear recipe.

All I can do is take the ingredients I have on hand.

Toss them together.

Give it a stir.

And let it simmer.

Valerie gordon your story matters web why "so what do you do? " is the hardest question to answer Valerie Gordon is a 10-time Emmy-winning television producer. Following a bad case of burnout, she turned a midlife crisis into a midlife transformation. She now runs The Storytelling Strategist, a career and communications firm that uses storytelling strategies to help clients land the job, close the sale, nail the presentation and grow great careers. She’s also the author of “Fire Your Narrator! A Storyteller’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life” and is pleased to say she has stayed out of urgent care since the chili-making incident. 

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