The Question: How Do You Define Yourself?

2011 May 17
by Grace Boyle

You know that question, “So, what do you do?”

How do I answer that? Sometimes when I’m feeling saucy I say, “I eat really good food. I laugh a lot. I blog. I love my boyfriend, puppy, family and friends. Travel. Do good. Ya know.”

Is that the answer you were looking for? I could say, I do X with X company and call it a day.

Is that really what you do?

How you define yourself?

I just sat down to write this post, after I noticed a few Twitter profiles where people only list their job title and company in their bio. Quick, go look, do you know people(s) who do that? I’m sure you do. What kind of person is that? Are they defined by a job? A title?

The Gender Question – Who YOU are?

My dear friend Jodi is introspective and asks questions, all the time. One night we were at one of the few bars in our small hometown in Iowa, some music bumping in the background, voices bubbling around us and she asked, “How would you describe who you are?”

It was almost Midnight and my vodka soda, with a splash of cran was held in my small hand, almost empty. I cocked my head to my side and wondered what Jodi was getting at. I knew she was curious but knowing her, the answer was going to be important.

I answered stating my passionate nature, my love for my heritage (Italian), a good friend, etc. etc. then I ended, mentioning what I did professionally.

She replied, pleased with my answer, “Did you know in an experiment with men and women, most women were defined by the relationships in their life and who they thought they were characteristically, while men replied with their job title or profession.”

Although I’m slightly paraphrasing the story, this always stuck with me and although it’s a generalization, I urge you to try it out. See how genders choose to answer.

First impressions mean a lot. So how do you define yourself? Is it the setting and environment in which you’re asked the question and how you choose to answer?

Doni wrote an amazing post, The Cocktail Question, musing over that silly question, that barely encapsulates who the person is. Dawn Foster writes in GigaOm that it’s the question she “dreads” more than anything especially when you pose it as a business interaction and/or you truly might need something from that person and your answer might be important.

I know that a long-winded answer isn’t ideal, but I know I’m a lot more than a job title. I also understand that our job is where a lot of our hours are spent, so of course it’s part of our life. It isn’t however our framework, our beliefs, our vision, our personality. It’s part of the mix. I prefer my saucy answer.

How do you choose to answer what you do? What if you’re in between jobs or have multiple jobs? It’s more than the career, right?

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  • Lindsay

    I wrote a very similar post on my blog last week! The “what do you do?” question is so frustrating when you do lots of things. Sometimes I tell people I’m a “slash” blogger/writer/consultant/knitter/cook/etc… but I think Tim Ferriss’ idea in The 4 Hour Work Week might be better–just tell people you’re a drug dealer 😉 

  • doniree

     Sometimes I have to go back and reread that Cocktail Question post to get back to the core of what I do, especially when — professionally — it’s ever-changing and evolving. I think what YOU do, Grace, is beautiful – all of it :) See you soon!

  • Clare Bear

    My favorite kind of people are those that DON’T ask, “So what do you do?” when we first meet. In the Boulder scene, I’ve even been told by a start-up entrepreneur that I am “risk adverse” for not working at or beginning my own start-up. It’s really annoying.

  • Susan Pogorzelski

    This is a topic that really fuels my fire, and I know you’re speaking professionally, but I can’t help but think it links personally, too, which I just wrote about ( — hope you don’t mind if I link, just because it’s relevant to what I’m going to comment). Although maybe both are less about the question “what do you do” and more about “who are you” – which might go in line with Jodi’s theory.
    I’m an introspective and self-reflective person – I like trying to figure myself out (and others, subsequently) because, for me, I feel this is how I try to find my place in the world, where I belong. If I know myself, then I can connect with and understand others.
    But that’s the problem with knowing yourself – because you see that you’re so much more than a label, though how do you communicate that to others? What do I do? I’m a foreign exchange banker,  a freelance writer, a humane league volunteer, blogger, mommy of a puppy…What am I? I’m an INFJ, a Libra, the youngest child and only girl. What do these things tell you? Yes, they can speak volumes about how you are but not whoyou are.
    Because who you are is so much more than a one-line bio or a paragraph summarizing generic traits, so much more than one lump sum of characteristics. Who you are is constantly changing. And maybe what you are is constantly changing, too. So how can you be defined when who you are encompasses everything?
    It’s all of the things that can’t be put on a business card. Sometimes, it’s the things about yourself that can’t even be accurately described. I want people to know me and I want to know people, to be able to connect with them on more than a superficial, definitive level. But with these labels (self or otherwise) and job titles and however else we try to define ourselves – we’re discounting the most important part…The person.
    And the fact that we’re not just one thing.
    I can’t tell if this makes me angry/frustrated or sad, but, truthfully, the issue makes me feel both deeply. Because I don’t want to be known for what I do or remembered for how I am. I want to be remembered by who I am – what, who, and how I love, what I believe in, what I do and don’t stand for, the way I think and feel. And this is the way I want to remember the people in my life as well…
    This is a great post, great post Grace…Thank you for writing about it. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about in the recent few weeks,  so thanks for providing a forum to figure that out further.

  • Tatiana

     I just thinking about you the other day and how much I love your post topics. 

    How I define myself is based on my philosophy, how I live my life. A lot of people enjoy listing their favorite activities, or at least what they do the most often. But, you’re not your activities, and in some ways, you’re not your job either because these are finite experiences. You are WHAT YOU BELIEVE. (Can your posts take HTML because I don’t want to cap everything and make it seem like I’m yelling at you). Your belief system speaks volumes about who you are: what you believe dictates exactly the kind of job you want/have, the types of relationships you cultivate, who you want to be with, what you enjoy doing in your spare time, how you view the world. The entirety of the Self comes down to Philosophy. My view of philosophy is based on what Ayn Rand said, here’s a quote from her lexicon:

    “Philosophy is the science that studies the fundamental aspects of the nature of existence. The task of philosophy is to provide man with a comprehensive view of life. This view serves as a base, a frame of reference, for all his actions, mental or physical, psychological or existential. This view tells him the nature of the universe with which he has to deal (metaphysics); the means by which he is to deal with it, i.e., the means of acquiring knowledge (epistemology); the standards by which he is to choose his goals and values, in regard to his own life and character (ethics)—and in regard to society (politics); the means of concretizing this view is given to him by esthetics.”

    When you know what your philosophy is, then you know Who You Are. Without a philosophy, you’ll never make the same, consistent choices because you don’t know what you believe in. And then, you’ll be introduced to a lack of identity, an insecure sense of self. Get a philosophy, and you’ll know whoa and what you are. 

    That being said, I like to think of myself as a spiritual objectivist, which is actually a paradox because objectivism at its core calls for atheism. Which I’m definitely not. But I believe a lot of what objectivism calls for, and reject some other parts about it as well. 

  • SativaBella

     I hate being asked “what do you do” and I almost always answer with where I work and the department I work in, but it never leads into the what.  

    This is a question I have been struggling with a lot recently as I am not sure who I am. I know what I do for a living (work for DrillSpot), I know where I live (Boulder), I know what I like to do in my spare time (concerts), but is that all that defines me? 

    Even after pondering this question for a good 20 minutes, I am unsure how to answer it in a way that actually states who I am as a person. Thanks for getting me to think introspectively this early on a Tuesday morning :) 

  • http://peterdewolf.dcom Peter

     Hmmmm.  You know, I’m not entirely sure.  I’d probably answer “What do you do?” with “Write.”  And answer any request for further info with “Things.”  But if asked how I’d define myself…  I’d probably answer with “As infrequently as possible.”

  • Rebecca Thorman

    Really liked this post and you told the story of you and your friend. I have to admit, I love hearing the answer to What do you do? and I love answering it. I don’t get why it’s a too-cool-for-school question nowadays. I just want to know what people are interested in and how they choose to spend their time. Anyway, I have noticed the gender thing, and I have been told I am extremely career-oriented (like it’s a bad thing), because I don’t answer the way most women do. For me, my profession DOES define me, and I’m not ashamed of that. I love what I do 8, 10, 12 hours a day. Do I also love to bike and have cucumber drinks and go for jogs and see plays and cook and clean and play yahtzee? Yes, of course. But what I do for my job IS my life right now. Which is funny because Ryan was just telling me last night how much he thinks I am defined by my relationships with friends and family (i.e., I am happiest when I’m not behind a computer screen), but I still love “what I do.”

  • Berrak

    I tell people I’m a connector. That’s what I do. No matter what my current ‘title’ is, I’m a connector at the core.

    The rest?

    Just depends on the audience & the circumstances.

    Loved this post! 

  • David Stehle

    People usually respond with what they are most proud of and/or where they spend the bulk of their time. I think everyone is aware that a person isn’t defined by their job alone, but does anyone really want to hear someone they just met spit out all their titles in one breath? It seems rather narcissistic. And I would totally walk away from that girl in a bar.

    I know, I sound rude. But like you said, the long-winded answer isn’t ideal…at least not during the initial introduction.

    I keep my Twitter profile short and sweet. What I do for a living, what I do for fun, and who/what I love. One item each. That’s all the general public needs to know.

    Maybe that’s just a dude thing – not indulging in excessive details. Or maybe that’s just a David thing – being private. Either way, if they are interested in learning more, they’ll ask. I’m not going to worry about selling myself to them or defining myself for them. Besides, where is the fun in that? I prefer to get to know someone the old fashion way – via conversation, not titles.

    In other words, don’t tell me who you are, show me.

  • Stephen Cullen

     I do kung fu with my stuffed animals. 

  • Grace Boyle

     I just saw the post. It’s very relevant, isn’t it? Haha I love Tim Ferriss’ story around this 😉

  • Grace Boyle

     Thanks love!

  • Grace Boyle

     Yeah – it’s interesting though. What’s a good first question to someone we just met? I don’t necessarily dislike the question, but it’s also a way for people to judge (or not)? :)

  • Grace Boyle

     Susan, totally agree. I wrote this post because this question can/maybe should be personal but the whole point is that we turn it professional. That’s not a bad thing, as a lot of other people commented here they don’t mind that their job is who they are. It often is.

    This is awesome and thank you I love your comments :)

  • Grace Boyle

    Oh, thank you so much Tatiana. That means a lot to me!

    I love the quote thank you for sharing it. I like how you’ve swayed this to be about philosophy and a “spiritual objectivist” is such a good name. In my Twitter profile I say I am a responsible hedonist. Hedonism is indulgence and all that is lavish in life. However, I consider myself responsible, I know when to rein things in and I always always give back and volunteer. I love the mix between the two.

    PS. Disqus (commenting system I use) I believe allows HTML :)

  • Grace Boyle

    It is hard to say. I think it’s a beginning point. So when I’m asked that, I usually do say my profession (nothing wrong with that, we spend 9 hours a day doing it) and then pepper in other things that I love, my personality, etc. Of course, it’s hard to perfectly encapsulate and it’s also good to truly think about it (e.g. more than your interests, but WHO you really are).

  • Grace Boyle

     Haha, I love your answer! :)

    Let’s keep it simple, then take it from there.

  • Grace Boyle

    Thank you! It wasn’t as though I dislike the question, but I feel that it changes to often, that the context changes what you might say and that a lot of people struggle with HOW to answer it. Many people do not feel the same as you where they are defined by their career mostly because they do not enjoy it.

    Maybe that’s it. Saying who you are has to equate enjoyment and empowerment. If I was ashamed of what I did or didn’t appreciate even my self worth, I think it would be challenging to answer that question. But like you – there are the quirky bits that completely make us who we are and those relationships are also defining! Yum, cucumber drink sounds good :)

  • Grace Boyle

    What a great alternative! And it’s SO true. I love it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Grace Boyle

    I like how you say don’t tell me who you are, show me. Show don’t tell :)

    The thing about that question is often asked when you first meet someone. Sometimes, you do not have an opportunity to show right away and it’s a buffer to let you see if you’re interested…always interesting.

  • Akhila

    Very interesting post – for some reason I haven’t really thought about it. Usually I just tell people what I do for a living, and also what I do in my free time. That I work for a civil rights non-profit, work for an access to justice NGO in Afghanistan, and eventually want to go to law school to work on international access to justice projects. If the conversation continues I’d also talk about how I love blogging and using social media. I think that over time, you get to know people and you don’t have to reveal everything about yourself in the beginning. I think that would be kind of strange, to be honest. I just want to hear what the person does for a living and what they’re interested in doing down the line, not everything about their entire life.

  • Grace Boyle

     Thanks Akhila! This all started when I noticed a lot of people only mentioning what they do, which in my opinion is / can be important but it’s also not constant. What is constant and true to you are your interests, quirks, characteristics, etc. The job could change just like that.

    Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s bad to say what you do, it’s natural and a good intro but it’s interesting to think deeper and really, WHO you are in that first impression.

  • Elisa Doucette

     Haha, I was just Tweeting about this yesterday (without having seen this post!) Moreso people have been asking me recently what exactly a freelance writer DOES. Needless to say, it is difficult to answer without dripping sarcasm.

    As for Twitter bios, mine is a total virtual potpourri of relationship, defining characteristics, career and hobbies: Not-So-Average Girl Next Door | Coffee Addict | Wine Yogi | Uber-Opinionated | Writer | Reader | Dreamer | Do-Gooder | Contributor at | : I like it that way. Nothing and everything. Apparently horrible for SEO/online biz & marketing rules. Course I’ve never been good with “rules”.  :)

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