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Branding & Marketing

Answering the Dreaded “So, What Do You Do?” Question

Have trouble talking about yourself? You need a better narrative and it starts with visualization — yes, really.

Knowing how to share parts of who you are — in beautiful, memorable ways — stumps many of us. Think of all the times you’ve heard the dreaded question: “So, what do you do?” at a cocktail party, and were not sure what to say.

What holds us back from answering is often a disconnection from our narratives—the story that tells the listener where you’re from, who you are, and where you’re going. Your narrative is not just a powerful source of connection for strangers over drinks, it’s also an effective tool for personal growth.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to map out a future narrative is partly because of the erroneous belief that you need to have one direct path and that you need to have it all figured out before you take the first step. This is both intimidating and immobilizing.

If you’ve ever felt stuck in your job, confused about what your next steps are, or intimidated by a lofty goal, visualizing your future narrative can be a useful tool for helping you out of your rut. Uncertainty is scary, and not knowing what’s next can feel paralyzing, leading to your stumbling answer at the cocktail party. But when we use visualization as a tool to deal with uncertainty by crafting future vision stories, we can improve our day-to-day performance, become more comfortable taking action and making changes, and prime ourselves to see opportunities that we might not have seen before.

It is difficult to change our lives because we constantly tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we’re capable of. However, your story is often changing, so you may feel compelled not to mention anything until it is certain or has already happened; we aren’t something, until we are. Parents are familiar with this phenomenon: for all of your life you weren’t a parent, and then, holy smokes, you are. The same goes for students, new employees, and business-owners: you weren’t a graduate, until you were. It happens slowly, and then, it seems, all at once.

You may feel compelled not to mention anything until it is certain or has already happened; we aren’t something, until we are.

The benefits of visualization

Strong personal, relational, and group narratives can be powerful sources of connection, resilience, and happiness. Future narratives (that is, what we want and where we are going) can be a source of motivation: they help us map where we want to go, let us visualize our potential, and allow us to make that potential real by creating safe spaces within our brains to understand and accept these new possibilities. It’s a chance to experiment while simultaneously nudging us to move in a new direction.

This isn’t to suggest that we should dwell in positivity and fantasy at all times — research suggests that too much positivity, in fact, might not help us as much as we might expect. Some studies show that affixing yourself to goals and outcomes can even be depressing when you focus too much on the goal, becoming discouraged by the difference between your present state and the desired outcome. The power of visualization lies in closing the gap between your future narrative and any current narratives when you imagine in detail by picturing the steps it will take to accomplish your goals.

It’s a chance to experiment while simultaneously nudging us to move in a new direction.

The best place to begin facing fear and uncertainty is in our minds: often we have deep fears in our subconscious about change, and these fears can keep us from growing into the next scary, uncertain phase of a project or life change. Dr. Catherine Collaut writes about the power of unconscious fears and anxieties, and how we must “dissipate the tension between our conscious goals and desires and the subconscious fears and beliefs that create resistance.” In other words, by taking the time to imagine our future stories, we can become more comfortable with, and less scared of, the outcomes.

A talented designer, for example, may have grown up in a small town—and the idea of moving to a big city is cause for anxiety; this underlying fear of the big city holds him back from applying to a job that’s otherwise perfectly matched to his talents. To help dissolve this fear, he can begin to write a mental story of this life change by visualizing each of the pieces of the move: the new apartment, the transit ride, the crowds of people, the winter conditions. By visualizing each area of uncertainty and how he can positively deal with the components, he will make the idea less scary and more possible. The key distinction, however, is that you’re not only visualizing an outcome: you’re also visualizing each step of the process.

Visualizing is so important that it’s been proven to change behaviors even when people don’t actively change anything except their mental stories. In a famous basketball study, players were divided into groups that visualized perfect free throws, a second group that practiced their shots, and a placebo group that did nothing. At the end of the study, the players that visualized their perfect throws improved almost as much as the group that practiced—without ever touching a basketball. It’s a practice used by Steve Nash, the all-time leading free-throw shooter in NBA history. (Note that the players weren’t just visualizing being winners, but the specific steps and actions it takes to perfect the free-throw shot, a crucial distinction.) 

Multiple sketches: dreaming in possibilities.

Instead, bring your narrative to light by performing this thought exercise: sketch out “possibility scenarios” and try them on like you would clothes from a store rack. You’re seeing how you like the look with your identity.

Because our brains can only take in a fraction of the information around us at any given point, we can prime our minds to see the world in certain ways. Priming is a psychological tool to shift what your brain focuses on. If I asked you to walk down the street and look for the color red, you would start to see stop signs, traffic lights, warning signals, and red-lettered storefronts. When you imagine your surroundings in a certain way, you begin to filter it and see it that way.

Sound crazy? It’s not. In your visualization, if you begin to map out your possible scenarios (you as CEO, you as the chair of the department, or you as the author of multiple books, etc.) and start to articulate the actual components of what that vision would entail, your brain will be wired to start seeing potential meetings and opportunities that fall in line (or in opposition to) this vision. By priming yourself with this narrative, in turn, you’ll begin to piece together openings in your present world that make sense with the visualization you’ve crafted.

If I asked you to walk down the street and look for the color red, you would start to see stop signs, traffic lights, warning signals, and red-lettered storefronts.

Here’s the important thing — each of these possibilities (usually there are three or four) are just that. As you sketch and play with these future possibility narratives, you allow your subconscious to become more familiar, and therefore more comfortable, with the ideas. Parenting becomes a little less scary (perhaps). Leading a school becomes a little easier to wrap your head around.

Once you’ve identified your future stories, take the possibilities you’ve written out and begin to imagine the future as the present. Delete all of the future tense from the story and write it out in first person. Ten or twenty years have passed. You are these things. The New York Times writes your bio at the end of a profile, and it says… What, exactly? Amazon uses a similar tactic when brainstorming products, as all pitches must have an accompanying press release from the future. This is leaning into the future narrative. 

As you lean into the story of your own future self, you shake off some of the current narratives that are holding you in place. That little voice that says, “I can’t write this essay,” responds differently when you’ve already considered yourself a writer.

That little voice that says, “I can’t write this essay,” responds differently when you’ve already considered yourself a writer.

With your future narrative established, there is now dissonance between the story of you as a successful writer and you being unable to finish your piece today. You are a writer; so you write. You retrain the part of your unconscious that was afraid of what was different by telling it a story of you already owning the new narrative. For example, in Willpower, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, writes of triathletes who hit their “wall” before the finish line. They teach themselves to switch from “I can’t do this” to “I already am doing this.” They bring their future narrative to the present and complete their race by actively reinforcing who they are becoming.

Your present narrative, the one you used at the after-work party, the rambling that might have included, “We’re thinking about having kids, and I might work on an essay, but I don’t feel like a writer just yet,” can begin to shift. As you identify ways you can pull from your future narratives, you can use them in the present. This subtle change shifts your language to “We’re going to have kids in the next few years,” and “I am a writer; I’m working on several pieces and my dream is to write a book in the next couple of years.” This becomes a better story, and it also helps push you in the direction of your goals.

How about you?

How do you ensure your goals become reality?

Comments (39)
  • Paul Jarvis

    I tend to tell people that, “I invented the Internet”. Obviously a lie (it was Al Gore!), but it always starts a conversation…

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      You started the internet? Crazy!

  • Chris Beaumont

    I use a lot of these techniques. The thing I do most often is to write my own future narrative out in a diary as if it’s already happened. It’s amazing how it opens up your mind to what you need to do in order to go where you want to. Great article, looking forward to reading the embedded links.

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      Thanks Chris. The power of writing out your future is so important. Sometimes I just take time and space to dream (in writing) and it changes my behavior and outlook significantly.

  • Sarah Peterson

    This is great advice! Thanks!

  • Mitchell Roth

    Thank you for writing. I realize I am missing the “visualizing each step of the process,” as it’s been difficult consistently taking the mental leap from present state to the visualization of the outcome.

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      Thanks for commenting, Mitchell!

      Breaking it down into the pieces—and imagining what the dream would take, day in and day out—is a really important part. It shows us more of the process and less of the outcome, and we have more power over changing the process than we do the outcome.

      Another way that this exercise works is that sometimes I discover that the dream (the outcome) isn’t as important to me, after all. Sometimes just the act of visualizing the steps makes me realize that I’m in love with the dream, but I hate the process—and then I have to decide if I’m willing to take the steps (even if its uncomfortable), or if I actually want to spend my time doing something else.

      • Mitchell Roth

        Valuing the learning process over my ability (or an outcome) is one of the mental switches I have made in the last couple months, and I have made so much progress because of it. It’s in line with what you said — I have control over the learning process, but not the outcome (or ability). It’s the difference between having a fixed mindset or growth mindset. I read about it at an article on which can be found by googling “The Mindset of a Champion” if you are interested!

  • Greg B

    Found a lot of value in this article Sarah! Experimenting with visualization has been on my mind for a while now. This may be the push I needed to get started.

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      Thanks Greg!

  • Clay Hebert

    Wonderful piece, Sarah. I find it so refreshing (and rare) when someone has a succinct, confident answer to that question.

    Personally, I’ve tried to stop asking the “what do you do” question in favor of others. Blog post coming soon on that. 🙂

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      Thanks, Clay! I love asking different questions about people because I find more interesting questions get better answers—and people are inherently complex, so finding some of the good stuff might take a few questions.

  • Prateek

    “That little voice that says, “I can’t write this essay,” responds differently when you’ve already considered yourself a writer.”

    If I already considering myself as a writer and if after some years I am not , then am I not setting myself for disappointment?

    • Sarah Kathleen Peck

      Interesting question, Prateek. I suppose in the flavor of the article, the idea is more that you would imagine yourself as a writer, and then specifically visualize the steps that it takes to do them—the coffee on the table, the pens, the computer, the hours spent behind the screen.

      Then, when someone asks you what you’re up to, you might be more inclined to realize that in order to accomplish that dream, you’re going to need to get back to the chair and keep writing.

      That’s the idea, at least.

  • Mike Anna Griffin

    I never answer the question “what do you do”? Its always a power play for the asker, and removes all mystery that every human being is. One more thing, I never tell the truth,

    • Ted

      Never tell the truth when someone asks “what do you do”? Hmm. You might have issues, Mike. Or Anna? Is that short for tranny?

      • Mike

        Actually its short for its none of your business and its rude. Think about it.

    • Taylor

      Mike! You are the first person I’ve ever come across who shares my opinion on this. Its either a generic ice breaker question, in which the asker doesn’t really care about the answer OR as you put it, a power play.

      • wahoo

        It has more to do with social status than anything else. It is an egocentric power game that calls for either game playing or simply answering the question with “I do what I do, and you do what you do.” The asker is taken aback, and the game begins. I consider “what do you do?” an insult and repay in kind if the person is really detestable, like most are.

      • eMBee

        i didn’t think it would be that bad, and yeah, i use it as an ice breaker. do you have any other suggestions?

        recently i read a great argument about asking: “what do you enjoy doing?” because that will not get an answer about the boring drudgery tasks that you are stuck with most of the time and instead focuses on the things you are actually interested in.

        same if i get the question, i’ll answer what i like to do because i am not interested in talking about the boring part of the work (unless the other person is doing the same and we can share war stories) or picking up new leads for that.

        greetings, eMBee.

  • lyle @ The Joy of Simple

    Hey Sarah and thanks for a great article!!

    I use future narratives all the time and find that that particular strategy reinforces the belief in oneself greatly. After all, if you say it, you should believe it!

    That being said, for the longest time, whenever I was asked the “…and what do you do?” question…I would simply smile and reply “Nothing. Absolutely nothing!” The party would then either walk away or dig deeper with more questions. Truth is though…I pretty much do nothing and am fine with that 🙂

    Take care Sarah and all the best.


  • Danielle Keister

    I love this article. Very useful and thought-provoking. As an industry mentor, I shared it with my community because I think it speaks to a very common problem in business: thinking you’re a “fraud”. In our industry, lack of confidence is such a common problem. People who are just starting their business are afraid to call themselves an expert, even when we know that clients seek out, value and pay more highly those who are experts. People will tell themselves, “But I’m new in business, I don’t have any clients yet or have only one so far. How can I call myself an expert?” But expertise isn’t about what has or hasn’t yet been accomplished. It’s about what you are in business and set up to be: an expert delivering the expertise of X.

    • stefan

      Very good destinction

  • stephenshooster

    The enemy of good is great. This article can get you through some of the odd feelings people experience when facing an obstacle. I’m going to share this with everyone.

  • Catherine

    “We’re going to have kids in the next few years” . . . oh, okay, they’re going to have kids in the next few years.

    “I’m going to meet a man I want to build a life with and he’s going to feel the same about me and then we’re going to get married and we’re going to have kids in the next few years” . . . this woman be crazy.

    I don’t know if sharing your positive vision for the future always works that well.

  • Ignati Yakubeni

    “The key distinction, however, is that you’re not only visualizing an outcome: you’re also visualizing each step of the process.” – it is very very important thing – because without visualizing each step visualizing an outcome don’t make sense

  • SoulChorea

    I think I discovered a counter point to this recently…I’m still working on the actual theory of it, but I have observed in myself and others that people with a particularly vivid imagination can actually get a premature sense of accomplishment just from visualizing themselves accomplishing their goals, which in turn often gives them enough fulfillment to actually put off the work needed to reach the goal. I’ve found that I have to NOT talk to anyone about what projects I’m working on so that I don’t lose my drive to completing them.

  • S©tt Green

    I like your idea Chris, I received a diary at Christmas that I thought ‘I’m not going to use this’ but this is a good opportunity to use it for something positive.

  • una fabula oscura

    The honest truth is closer to: “I usually do whatever I want to do except sometimes I don’t”. I mean, where do I even begin to list the bazillions of things that I do or have to do or want to do. Just saying the first thing betrays all the others by implying a false priority when in reality my priorities are constantly changing.

    Actually the most convenient thing to do is open a canned response of what they expect to hear and swiftly don the social mask.

  • Julie Vatuone

    This was the best read I’ve had in 2014!

  • Stephanie

    WOW! I second that @julievatuone:disqus! The best article I have read in 2014! And SO, SO TIMELY. Thank you Sarah Kathleen Peck. 🙂

  • HH

    This is fantastic!!! helpful!

  • Rezaul Haque

    This is useful, thanks. What if you’re more than one thing, say your an IT consultant and a photographer (and want to be both), do you emphasize one over the other based on your audience?

  • Dave Rothacker

    I am a writer and I write about Pieces of Freedom in other people’s lives. Whew! There I said it. I wasn’t always able to do so. Here’s a link to my story. But more important than me are the two links to my friends Pam Slim and Penelope Trunk and their articles on this very subject. As you can tell by the dates of these articles, I’ve been at this business of trying to introduce myself for a long time LOL!

    Wish I would have been able to read Sarah’s advice back in the day!

  • Dana Leavy-Detrick

    I work with a lot of career changers, and this is a big obstacle for them. I agree that putting yourself in those shoes and starting to talk the talk is going to help you create that image of yourself in that new space. Plus it helps you get comfortable in talking about yourself in that way, and developing the story that you want to tell people around what you do (or are in the process of doing). Sell yourself as you want to be seen.

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  • sarmistha tarafder

    I believe the answer lies in ‘constant doing.’ Think, speak and act what you want to be. “I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star… I want
    people to walk around delusional about how great they can be – and then
    to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.” Lady Gaga

  • DPB

    I don’t want to say what I do for I living
    How do I politely get out of this question ?

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