“What I Do”

Option 1: Landscape Architect, Explorer 

What do I do?

I never know how to answer this question. Do I start with swimming? Architecture? Writing? All of the people and things and quirks I love about San Francisco? My incessant love of traveling? I’m never sure how to answer or what people are really asking. I find the question a confusing one, and I think a lot of people find also it difficult. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. So for a while, I’ve been thinking about precisely this question: What are we really asking? What are we trying to find out about each other? Are the current answers we give and quip satisfactory? And how might we better answer it? (And lastly, what is it that I do, as an example–if you’re curious, I answer in long form, a style I do enjoy).

First: the question. In a previous post I asked whether or not the question, “What do you do?” is a bad question, and it generated several good, thoughtful questions. As I wrote:

“Is ‘what do you do?’ such a bad thing to ask? …I love the topic of this question, and I don’t think that it’s necessarily a bad question. Let’s look at the heart of why we ask it, and also, where it comes from. First, we ask the question because we want some way to find out–to hear–the stories of other people. We want to connect with other people and find common shared experiences that tell us whether or not we can understand them, become friends with them, get along with them, etc. We should pay attention first, to the intent of the question–is the asker curious? Do they want to connect with you?–before we judge them on the semantics or sophistication of their ability to connect. In short, be gracious with people who are inquiring earnestly. 

Second, the reason that we predominantly ask the question “What do you do?” — comes from a century of focusing solely on work and security as our livelihood. For the last several decades (or more specifically, 1930 – 1960) it was very important that you find a stable job, and you keep it. Couple that with a burgeoning corporate structure and a society that was embracing larger and larger businesses (and benefits, and corporate institutions), and the easiest and quickest way to figure out who someone was — was by asking what they did for a living.

We realize — and most people know — that asking “what do you do?” as the only question to probe into someone’s fascinating, interesting, complex set of stories is very superficial. There’s a lot more. And I think each of us can ASK more interesting questions and learn, once again, how to tell our stories to each other in a way that lets us connect. Because we’re human, and we’re curious, and we want to know what the other humans around us are, well, doing. 

And in response to people who think it might be a terrible, or rude, question to ask, let’s consider a few things. As I wrote:

“First: I think we (you) owe it to ourselves to come up with several more interesting responses, too, and not just flippantly reply. When someone asks, what do you do? You can respond with a thoughtful answer that dodges the underlying presumption of the question. For example, I could answer: I’m a sister, I’m an aunt. I’m a swimmer. I’m a writer. I’m a designer. I go running. I’m build projects. The way you tell your story can bring into it a lot of layers without saying; “I work for this and this company or client …”

Sometimes, for clarity, I follow up with — “Oh, so you want to know who PAYS me? Well, that’s a different question.” And if we tease it out a bit more, the question, “what do you do, (for a living)” is really asking you — “what are you valued for in this society?” And because money is one way of measuring things, that’s one way to account for — “who finds you useful, and would I find you useful or helpful to me, too?

The question “What do you do (for a living)” might really be asking, “What are you valued for in this society?”

Let’s pause for a second and consider why people might not like answering this question. There’s a pressure, an idea, that you need to have your story figured out and your pitch perfect for whomever you run across next. As though your story comprises the best of you, and if you haven’t figure that out yet, then you’re not quite … polished. Ready. Perfect.

I think this is a strange approach; an approach that prizes thinking over doing and iterating; an approach that says, hold on, before you get into the world, first figure out what you’re doing.

I’m not sure I’ve ever “figured out what I’m doing,” by sitting around and thinking about it for a little longer. Sure, thinking is necessary. But so is action–and so often we are paralyzed from action by the sheer process of over-thinking. Our minds whir around the idea that “if we just figure out the perfect statement, then we’ll be ready to tell people.” And if I just figure it out first, then it will be okay. The irony is that you’ll learn more from tripping and stumbling and iterating than by circling through your brain any longer. You’ve got to get out and do.

For your story, your pitch–I think that you need to use the world as a place and a laboratory to test your ideas–and your story! When you go to conferences, prepare a handful of sentences that describe who you are and what you do. Worry less about them being perfect and more about them making a ballpark description of some of the things you do. Arbitrarily pick a couple of them. Let’s say you knit in the evenings, host dinner parties, run a small telephone group, bag groceries during the day, pitch in at the coffee house, and align tables and chairs at the church on the weekends. Tell all the stories, and watch how people respond For the first group of ten people, tell them the stories of your dinner parties. For the next group, tell them a new way of explaining the grocery store shenanigans.

The point of your story or pitch is to create the beginning of an interesting conversation and a reason to stay connected later, not to sum up who you are and everything you’ve done. 

Remember, the point of your story isn’t to nail the first sentence and then let your breath out and walk away–the point of your story or pitch is to provoke intrigue and create the beginning of an interesting conversation or a reason to stay connected. It turns out that people are willing to continue to talk to you over time if you have common interests or overlap. So try a story on, like you’re trying on a hat. And if the reactions are positive, keep refining it! And if the story doesn’t bring about conversation, try a couple of different ways of explaining yourself.

Conferences are clever places for multivariate split tests to figure out whether or not your pitch is working. As a landscape architect, I find it nearly impossible to tell people what I do without spiraling into a tedium of conversations that revolve around either how difficult it is to operate a riding lawn mower (something I don’t do), or the fact that the person in front of me feels compelled to tell me every nuance of their front garden and how I ought to completely redesign their deck space for the extremely reasonable rate of only $400 or $500 for several months’ worth of work (Again, something I don’t do). Both conversations are ones that I typically enjoy avoiding. In which case the conversations start something like this:

I’m a writer. I work in architecture. I work for an international design company. I explore spatial configurations. I look at how city systems work. I work on master-plans for major conceptual designs around the world.

One of those threads usually piques some interest – What do you write about? What kind of architecture? – and I can launch into a few more intricacies of the type of design work we do, and what it really means to be a landscape architect and regional planner (something the world, in my experience, doesn’t seem to yet understand).

But in today’s world, even the question “What do you do?” is insufficient, because we do so much more than our work. Or our work is so much more than we can explain. 

As we disentangle from full-time, long-term commitments to corporations and products, we are becoming an increasingly nibble, dexterous society. our human labor is flexible, and multiple people work different jobs, or even one person flits between several jobs within the same (or long-term) time frames. So the question “What (one, singular) thing do you do?” is something people are finding increasingly insufficient.

So the real question is, How can I find out what’s interesting about you?, and

How are we going to tell our stories in an ever-changing world?

I don’t think the world is getting more complex necessarily; we’re instead untangling from an over-simplistic way of understanding each other and re-learning how to have conversations with each other.

So, in light of the question directed at me over time, again and again, let me start to explain.

I’ll begin by telling you what it is that I do.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my long-form letters to a dear friend; thank you in advance for letting me share this ramble in a more public forum. He asked me to explain to him what, exactly, I did, and this was my response. No sales pitch or sound bite here; and the point is–even a long answer can be perfectly comprehensible.

What do I do? Ahhh, I always struggle to answer this question.

Projects. I do a lot of projects.

In simplest terms, I am a writer and designer.

Here’s how I describe it to some people: I do three things — I have a full-time job directing communications for a landscape architecture and urban design company (a job we invented a little over a year ago to bring publishing + tech innovation within the firm, so now I spearhead all of our new publishing, writing, and innovation projects, as well as projects in marketing and business development). It’s a story I’m really excited about, because when I started the job as a draftsperson/designer, I wasn’t as enthused about it as I am now, and I think one of the greatest (and under looked) opportunities is for innovation within existing companies — how to propel companies that have succeeded thus far towards more greatness.

The company I work for has been around for 50+ years, which, when you consider that most companies don’t make it past start-up phase; and another 90% of businesses fail before 10 years, makes companies 20+ years old gems in terms of historic and archaic remnants, and business models with ample storylines to learn from. At the same time, these older businesses have to fight challenges of stagnation, rigidity, and reduced innovation over time and be flexible enough to accommodate the changing economic, political, and urban climates of the changing ages. Companies that can do this should be studied carefully — so I get to study this, internally, as I create and start new projects throughout different offices that test our capacity to tell the stories of what we do.

Second, I built a website about landscape architecture + urbanism by connecting a team of people interested in the same urban patterns and issues I was, which launched last September. It’s a work in progress, but immensely fun to be building a library + site about urban innovation and the influence of landscape architecture in city design. I usually spend one or two nights a week writing for and managing the site, which lets me think, explore, and publish new works of landscape architecture as well. As I wander through cities and spaces, I often think about how arbitrary and strange it is that we got here, and I want to figure out what we can do next. I think we need to think a LOT bigger about urban scales. 

I’ll take a short tangent while we’re on this topic to tell you two things I’m pretty passionate about. First, landscape architecture is terrible about communicating what it is that we do. People think we ride lawnmowers. I find this ridiculous. So, I have been working to change the conversation about landscape architecture + explain what it is to more people. Second, I think as a result of better communications, in line with “Blue Ocean Strategy” thinking, that the world of landscape architects (about 29,000 registered in the USA, I believe, but the figure stands to be checked because I’m sure my memory could be faulty), this number could expand in double and triple numbers in short time, if and once we begin to connect the dots about how and why what we do is useful. If we can’t tell the story of what we do in a way that’s compelling and resonates, then are we really advocates for what we do? Are we making the different we should be making? It’s not about competing within a small marina, so the theory goes: it’s about identifying more markets in a giant ocean, and understanding that you probably have huge untapped markets that you can direct your energies towards better than trying to compete in existing niche marinas. If I can identify those, by bringing landscape architecture to more mainstream popularity and understanding, I think that would be pretty… awesome. More on this tangent later, I’m sure.

Third, back to the “what I do” thread: I’m addicted to writing. I get in trouble because I carry on lengthy email pen-pal ships with friends all over the country, this message as just one example. I tend to email my family 5000-word updates on a regular basis, and have no problem writing… indefinitely. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and write stories; I have notebooks that come with me everywhere in the world, and I write short stories whenever I get the inspiration. Do you have things that you “can’t–not?” Those things that you couldn’t possibly imagine your life without? For me, that’s writing, and explaining things to people, and also–well, it’s next: 

I also can’t stop moving. Running helps me dream, and I make up stories whenever I roam, just tickling through the spaces and places and watching the world at work. I have about 100 essays unpublished on my hard drives, and another hundred or so in my queues online, as well as sketches of several dozen pitches ready to roll around in my mind. Sometimes I can’t write or read fast enough, and I get impatient with the execution of my other projects because I want to write faster. I took a typing class so I could get my ideas down faster because I thought that typing slow was kind of inefficient. Now, on a good day, I can average 90 or 100 words per minute, but the problem is, I can still think a lot faster than that.

The good news is that I’m ever having a super-busy week, I pull up these drafts, and I can work through them a little bit faster and schedule a few to post over the course of a couple of weeks and then leave the writing space (online) to focus on my project execution. That saves my sanity, because I can’t always show up in all these places all at once. I would drive myself crazy. However, I have more drafts building up faster than I can post–I need to push publish a lot more often.

Speaking of writing, I often take writing weekends–like this one, in fact–where I try to work through 5-10 essays and build out the drafts for several working questions, book summaries, or ideas I’m thinking about, and that way when I go back to work/busy life, I have a store of pieces that are halfway done that can be shaped further. Not all of them get published–a lot gets thrown away on the cutting floor. One of my challenges this year is to write more, or at least publish more, and put what I’m thinking out in the open (still terrifies me).

Hmm. Why am I saying this? Well, this translates roughly into my third project, a personal website where I look more closely at psychology, strategy, and the limitations and potentials of people + the mind, and how we can manipulate, tweak, motivate and inspire ourselves to do what we’re really capable of. It started with the idea of “starting” things–so I call it “It Starts With,” and I try to figure out how to make things happen. It’s a place where I really get to figure out, on a human level, how the brain works, how systems work, how we can unlock the potential of people and make ourselves better.

Each of these projects feeds into each other to drive the next one forward; as I explore ideas about becoming a better person and writer, my skill level for the company I’m at improves; my design work challenges my internal thought processes; being forced to execute on a timeline teaches me about teamwork and collaboration.

But that’s just the beginning.

The long and the short of it is that I study how people, how landscapes, how businesses, and how cities work — and I tell the stories of each of these systems. It ends up looking like two blogs and a job as the physical product, but there’s so much more to it than that. I have several side projects as well, so most of my friends just know me as the infinite project starter.

If it’s worth doing, I try to do it.

And I love writing.

And explaining things to people.

And doing things.

Does that explain what I do? And how do you explain what you do?

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14 Responses to “What I Do”

  1. Rachel says:

    Wow! Great piece! So true that ‘what do you do?’ equates to ‘what do you do that is of value?’ Or for me what I really want to know is ‘ what do you care about?’. You’ve also inspired me to write a lot more. Going to go do that right now.

  2. Jake says:

    It can be a double-edged sword sometimes. I mean are they asking because they genuinely want to know or because there is an awkward silence going one? I, for one, love the long form that you have provided, but given the wrong situation, you can go from being someone who is “passionate and in touch with her intentions and desires” quickly into “[whispering to the person next to them] sheesh, I was just asking a simple question!” I have to assume that the truest answer to the question would come across best over a succession of conversations.

  3. Cordelia says:

    This is an issue I’ve struggled with, and written about, many times, but I’ve never seen it explored or explicated so beautifully before.

    You’re right, the ultimate thing people are getting at when they ask “what do you do” is what sort of person you are, what your interests/abilities are, what you enjoy doing. They’re trying to get to know YOU, to find an interesting hook they can relate to. So why not throw aside convention and create the “story” that most effectively tells that?

    I love this approach to this question! I will be keeping it in mind (and using it often) for my own upcoming introductions!

  4. Leslie says:

    Gorgeous and thorough post! One thing that really annoys me here in Chile is that in place of “What do you do?” people ask “What are you?” Expected answers include: industrial engineer, doctor, psychologist, publicist, and other titles earned with a university degree. My answer is a lot longer than that, and I unscientifically test my answers. For taxi drivers and other acquaintances, I like to say I’m either a translator or a teacher. Both of these are feasible for a foreigner fluent in the local language, and don’t require a long explanation.

    If I’m chatting with someone who seems interested in a longer story, I often end up in a rambling description of projects and places and passions. I’m in the process of re-doing my website to strike a balance between the kind of title that people here expect, and what is true in my life.

  5. Johan says:

    Love it. I’ve been “split-testing” my answer for the past few months, and it’s also made a world of difference when I only give a short “teaser” answer that sparks curiosity and conversation.

    Whoever came up with the “elevator pitch” had it slightly wrong. Don’t dump all of it on a person. Drop crumbs that they can chose to pick up – or leave.

  6. jennifer says:

    Yes… you got to “what you do” in the last paragraph. I can’t help but feel that this is your elevator pitch: “I study how people, how landscapes, how businesses, and how cities work — and I tell the stories of each of these systems.” Succinct, yet enough juiciness to intrigue someone to ask follow-on questions to learn more. From “what you do” the next level down is “how you do it”… landscape employer, website, blog, fitting together those pieces to create a bigger story, or “value.” I like the thought of “what value do you bring.” Good way of framing that.

  7. Rachel Smith says:

    Wow, this truly resonated with me (and makes me think twice before I answer what i do AND ask someone what they do). Thank you for your eloquent words!!!

  8. Cara says:

    Yes. This is a question that I answer differently on a weekly basis. I don’t really like the question, as it implies that the doing is separate from the being, and relies on “career” paradigms. After all, if someone practices law for their income/money, I don’t think that “lawyer” is necessarily a great answer for “what one does.” I do the dishes. Am I dishwasher? I garden. A lot. Am I a gardener? I’m a PARENT first and foremost, but I’m certainly not paid for that role. I’m pleased to know that other creatives struggle with the answer to this question. Maybe the answer to the question is: “I think outside the box.”

  9. […] “What I Do” In today’s world, even the question “What do you do?” is insufficient, because we do so much more than our work. Or our work is so much more than we can explain.  […]

  10. This is beautiful, wonderful, and there’s lots of fodder here for my own writing and journaling to keep me busy for a while. I am excited to explore more of your writing!

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  14. Andy says:

    I feel your frustration concerning working in landscape architecture. I work for a general contractor and the favorite repsonse is “Oh, so you’re an architect.” It is hard to explain and I think people don’t understand what has to happen to design and build things. Nice article!