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Big Ideas

How to Answer the Dreaded Question “What Do You Do?”

A guide to writing a career mission statement and why you need one even if (especially if!) you work for someone else.


“So, what do you do for work?” This is one of the first questions we’re asked—or that we ask—upon meeting someone in both professional or social settings. We might reply by mentioning our title, role, or the company we work for. Yet rarely does this paint the full picture of the value we contribute. Furthermore, sometimes simply replying with our title or the company we work for gives no context to the asker. A rote answer can also be a reflection of our own confusion about why we do the work we do or an indication that we’re on autopilot—maybe we haven’t considered what motivates our work or the direction of our careers in some time. 

If you are employed by a company like Airbnb, Netflix, or the New York Times, your company has a mission statement you are likely familiar with. As consumers, we may also know the missions of these brands and companies. For example, the mission of The New York Times reads: “We seek the truth and help people understand the world. This mission is rooted in our belief that great journalism has the power to make each reader’s life richer and more fulfilling, and all of society stronger and more just.”

For those of us who aren’t employed by companies and are freelancers or have started our own businesses, perhaps a mission statement was part of your business planning stages. You may have written a mission when you set out to consider your goals. However, even these mission statements may only capture a portion of your overall career paths. 

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Defining the traditional mission statement

The definition of a mission statement varies depending on who is assigning meaning. According to entrepreneur.com, a mission statement is “a sentence describing a company’s function, markets and competitive advantages; a short written statement of your business goals and philosophies.” 

Wikipedia identifies it as “a short statement of why an organization exists, what its overall goal is, identifying the goal of its operations: what kind of product or service it provides, its primary customers or market, and its geographical region of operation.” 

On their site, Shopify defines a mission statement as “a brief description of why a company or nonprofit organization exists. In one to three sentences, it explains what the company does, who it serves, and what differentiates it from competitors.” 

A more holistic view: the career mission statement  

However, to take a more holistic approach to our paths, it’s important to define our career mission statement, which can capture various facets of our work and encapsulate multiple seasons of our professional lives. It goes beyond our current role, title, the company we work for, the business we started.

A career mission statement helps us clarify what we ourselves bring to our work: our skills, resources, and interests. It tells us why we are doing the work we do right now and who we are doing it for. It can guide us in making important decisions about our futures. It reminds us of our priorities and values and signals when we’re out of alignment with them.

As you grow professionally, it’s important to revisit your career mission statement and refine it as needed. A changing career mission statement will build on what you’ve already achieved, and help you remain relevant as your focus shifts, your contributions expand, and your skillset evolves.

Drafting a career mission statement in 5 steps 

Drafting a career mission statement can feel overwhelming, especially if you’ve never done an exercise like this before. However, once you write a draft, you can edit and work with it until you have a version you’re satisfied with. Here are 5 steps to get started: 

  1. Take the pressure off. I recently led my first online course and when it came time to talk mission statements, my students said the phrase itself paralyzed them. “Mission statement” felt daunting, like it had to be perfect the first time. I gave them permission to rename it and call it something else, like “My focus right now” or “What I’m currently working on.” Rename it to something more casual if that helps you get over the initial hump of sitting down to write such a zoomed out look at your life. 
  2. Consider what makes you unique. List at least 10 things that articulate your value. They do not have to be related to work or your current role. If you get stuck, reach out to 3-5 people who you’ve known for at least a year to ask them how you contribute value to the world, personally and professionally. For example, you could ask, “What do I contribute to the world that adds value?” Or you could ask, “When have you seen me the happiest at work? What kind of activity was I doing?” 
  3. Explore your interests and curiosities. Our career paths often follow our interests, curiosities, and passions. While we may believe someone we admire and consider successful had a plan all along, many people fell into their career through a personal interest. For example, many designers I know came into design through a connection to music, which led to executing visual work for their band. Your interests and curiosities are clues about the career path you might want to take. Write down at least 10 things you are interested in or curious about. 
  4. Identify your resources. Resources include formal training, degrees, certificates, on-the-job training, your time and money, your network and community, and your life experiences. You bring all of these parts of you to your work. Spend at least 10 minutes writing down all of the resources you have acquired over your lifetime, making note of the resources you currently have access to. 
  5. Put it all together. Look at your lists of what makes you unique, your interests and curiosities, and your resources. You will see themes and patterns emerge. What are they? For example, perhaps you are drawn to leadership positions that include an entrepreneurial approach, even when you are working for others. Maybe writing is a key theme that emerges—no matter your role, writing might play a part. Or maybe you find great meaning in helping others learn and grow, so an element of teaching or mentoring is a consistent interest. 

There’s no exact formula for how to write your career mission statement, however you can start here: “I [verb] [who/audience] to [outcome/result] by [how you do it].” This fill-in-the-blank statement can be intimidating, so here’s an example. As a coach, I say, “I [help] [creative professionals] to [live into their possibility] by [coaching them to take action].” That’s only one of the many ways I could state it. Most simply, I say, “I help others live into their possibility.” Not only does that encompass my coaching, but it also guides my writing and speaking.

Even now, my career mission is shifting. After two years of building a new business, I’m realizing that helping others live into their possibility is my highest level career mission. But evolving out of that is a more focused career mission: to help people live into their possibility on the other side of transition, change, and reinvention. 

That’s the thing. As we grow, our careers also change. A career mission statement allows you the flexibility to continue to evolve while also offering you a stable foundation—a thread that runs through the highs and lows and all the in-betweens of creating a path that is fulfilling now and in future seasons of your work. 

More Posts by Tina Essmaker

Tina Essmaker is a New York City-based coach, writer, and speaker.


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