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“What do you do?”

Pictured: me, a special snowflake that society cannot neatly fit into a box.

I squirm when people ask what I do.

My answer typically starts with a deer-in-the-headlights stare as I pause to get a read on the person who asked. Have they ever started a company?

In these moments, I envy accountants, lifeguards, cashiers, lawyers, musicians, or anybody else who has a job we all kind-of-sort-of understand. Unfortunately for me and the person curious about my vocation, I am none of those things.

For a while, I felt insecure about this. Shouldn’t I have a clear answer for one of society’s most persistent questions?

But now I realize that “what do you do?” is a hard question to answer for certain lines of work — entrepreneurship being one of them.

Being an entrepreneur is just different than most jobs. You have to create opportunities, which is itself a loosely-defined skill, and then invent a job for yourself that you think will best serve the opportunity.

On top of that, your opportunity and how far you are along in seizing it are constantly evolving — which means your job is too.

Below, I’ll briefly explain why I find “what do you do?” so hard to answer and how I’ve made peace with the fact that maybe I don’t need to. I’ll also propose an alternative question I’d happily answer.

My work changes. Frequently.

From the outside, the things I’ve done since leaving college seem unrelated. I launched a cannabis startup, a satire newsletter, an AI-powered voiceover service, and a paid writing community, amongst other things.

My roles at each company have been different. At one, I ran engineering. At another, I ran growth and marketing. At another, I spent most of my time doing customer development.

I carried over plenty of skills from one to the other, but I’ve rarely shied away from a project if it required ditching much of what I’m already good at to learn something new.

I chase ideas, then acquire skills.

Each company I helped launch started off as an idea I became obsessed with. In some cases, the idea felt mostly my own. In most cases, it was a vision shared with a few other people. In every case, the idea hijacked my waking mind. I just had to see it come to life.

If I can’t shake an idea for a few months, I commit to doing just about anything to bring it to life, which typically includes learning tons of new skills.

Ideas have guided most of my career decisions, culminating in a “strategy” where I look for opportunities that I’m willing to develop skills for, rather than looking for opportunities to maximize the time I spend applying the skills I already have.

I prefer situations where I can do both, but I’m willing to learn lots of new things if an idea is compelling enough.

Marie Poulin said it well:

I see my career as a series of chapters. These are just projects that I take on.

Worst case scenario? This was a really fun chapter in my life. I got to meet amazing people and hone certain skills. I’m always thinking, “these skills are things that I’m bringing to the future, always.”

I’m being a little pedantic, of course. If somebody asks what I do, I could say something like “I started a company that [does X thing],” but that would say little about my actual day-to-day work and how much it seems to change every 6 months.

“What do you do?” kind-of, sort-of implies that the range of skills you apply today will be the ones you apply for a long time to come.

And while we inevitably bring many of our skills with us into future projects, the actual things that those projects will demand of us can’t yet be known.

So here’s an alternative question I’d prefer to answer:

“What are you doing right now?”

What am I doing right now?

That’s easy. I’m working on an idea I’m obsessed with right now. I’m learning some new skills that will help bring it to life. Once I do, I’ll move onto something else.

Next question, please.


Thank you to Alice Lemee and the Compound Writing members who gave thoughtful feedback on early drafts of this: Amanda Natividad, Kevin Gosztola, Steven Ovadia, Lyle McKeany, and Art Lapinsch.

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