“What do you do?”

Since Kika wanted to know what happened next, I’ll try to summarize the Emily story quickly before I start this post:

Emily left Waldorf after a couple years and we were reunited. She was the maid of honor at my wedding. But for the time that she spent in school, she was too busy learning the social system for me, and I was too busy running around in the woods to worry about it very much. School, even Waldorf, seemed all-encompassing. And when she invited me in for “bring a friend to school day,” I was shocked to discover that in art class, the teacher suggested that everyone draw a rose. The same rose. And all of the students turned to one boy and said, “Yours is the best.” I couldn’t believe that sort of thing was even allowed. (Also, I was a little offended, since I had hoped that my rose would be the best…)

And here is today’s post:

When you’re a kid, people ask you, “What grade are you in?”

I never knew how to answer, because I could never remember what grade I was supposed to be in.

When you’re twenty or so, people ask you, “Where do you go to college?”

And after college, people start to ask you “What do you do?”

Penelope Trunk wrote about the question “what do you do?” and offered some suggestions about how to approach it.

Which is helpful, because I never really know what to say. I do a lot of things. Some of them sound more like legitimate careers than others. Some of them sound ridiculous on their own. Some of them are just boring.

My husband asked me the other day if I knew many homeschoolers who grew up and went into the typical “successful” professions– doctor, lawyer, investment banker, pharmacist, that sort of thing.

I thought about it for a long time. I couldn’t think of anyone. Which is not to say that plenty of homeschoolers don’t go those routes. I’m sure they do. I mean, first of all, I don’t even know an enormous group of homeschoolers who are my age. But the my-age homeschoolers I do know don’t seem that interested in following paths that people think of when they hear words like “secure,” “pillar of the community,” and “money.”


Maybe we never learned to want the things that people are supposed to want when they imagine their futures. Maybe we got comfortable with being weird. Maybe we learned to follow our interests too well, and they didn’t tend in those directions. I don’t really know.

I know homeschoolers who are obvious successes– astoundingly skilled musicians, brilliant academic thinkers, a thriving NYC entrepreneur, a cook at one of the most highly ranked restaurants in the country. Some of them can probably answer the question “what do you do?” without blinking. But for the most part they aren’t doing something normal. And often they aren’t on a track that involves a lot of money. Most of my homeschooled friends don’t seem to crave money. They don’t seem to wish they had a lot more of it. They aren’t fantasizing about futures in which they can buy an impressive house and a sexy car and do whatever they want. Often they are already doing what they want.

(I googled “sexy car,” and this was one of the only images that didn’t involve women in bikinis. source)

Like a lot of homeschoolers, I know what I want to do. And like a lot of homeschoolers, I want to write. But since I also like to sing and teach, those are also things I do professionally. I don’t know what to call myself. I can say “I just got my Master’s.” I can say, “I’m writing a book.” I can say, “I’m a lay clergy member,” I can say, “I’m a blogger,” or “I’m a freelance writer.” I can name the Huffington Post, so that people will say, “Oh– wow!” Or my own blogs, so that people will look a little confused and say, “Oh. Cool.” I can mention Columbia University so that people will think I must be smart, or mention teaching 3rd graders, so that people will think I’m sweet but not incredibly ambitious.

I say different things on different days, to different people. I can’t settle on the right answer. Maybe because there isn’t one.

Maybe there isn’t ever one, even for the lawyers. They get to say, “I’m a lawyer,” but of course that only begins to describe them. There’s a lot more to everyone than their job. And in this day and age, there are often a lot more or less jobs to every person than there used to be. So maybe it’s time to stop thinking about careers as straightforward, all-encompassing paths that dictate who we are. We are a lot. We do a lot.

(maybe pillars are overrated, anyway. source)

P.S. I wrote about the whole twenty-somethings and jobs issue here. And in HuffPo. In case you didn’t think I was very ambitious :)

P.P.S. A piece I wrote about homeschooling was on the front page of AOL! You can find it here now. Welcome to everyone who found me through that!

12 comments to “What do you do?”

  • Jill

    This is absolutely brilliant! As a journalist at a small newspaper and a freelancer, I’ve always found this particular question difficult to answer. No one ever seems to be satisfied with my response.

    I just discovered your recent AOL article through another blog I frequently read and I’ve really enjoyed your writing.

  • My standard response has always been, “As little as possible.”

  • Kika

    I am enjoying your thoughts on all this. I come from a family of 12 (diverse individuals) kids, half of whom were homeschooled. Wish I had been one of them. I homeschool my own children. My younger homeschooled siblings are now in the 18-28 yr range… all pursuing different types of “career paths”.

  • Jakob Breitbach

    Love your writing! Thanks for sharing. I was also home-non-un-schooled. Went to college for music; have taught music in private elementary schools; and now tour full-time with an Americana/bluegrass band.

    A better question for folks would be “How do you spend your days?” That really gets to the heart of our existence. “Oh, I sit a computer all day”…..”I drive a truck”….”I fill papers in an office”….. Makes the questioner really think about the point of their question in the first place. How about: “I follow my bliss….all day long.”

    Keep up the great work!

    Sincerely,
    Jakob Breitbach (of Circle School, which is what my mother called it, named after her favorite Joni Mitchell song.)

  • Marina

    I just found you through your article on mydaily.com, and have now subscribed to both your blogs–I love your writing. Nice to meet you. :) I’m one of the people with a simple-yet-weird thing I do–I’m a volunteer coordinator. (People give me money for it and everything! Craaaazy.) Not at all what I thought I’d be doing when I was a 12 year old unschooler writing fantasy novels and directing plays in my backyard, yet somehow still perfect for me.

    I do know a grown homeschooler who’s in medical school. Although come to think of it, she’s doing research on AIDS and occasionally traveling to Africa. So maybe still not the stereotypical “success” path.

  • Daniel

    I often wonder if this is a particularly American question since our culture is obsessed with money, status and success. I remember reading an article many years ago, no idea where, and the author remarked about how he had a lovely dinner party somewhere in France with about 8-10 guests, it went on for several hours and at the end of the evening, nobody had any idea what each person did to earn money, the topic of jobs, careers, professions simply did not come up.

    I have a fantasy of this happening to me, still waiting.

    Cultural biases aside, it is important to remember that the brain does not like to think. The brain prefers to be on autopilot and it likes to put things into schemas. See this amazing article (http://adage.com/cmostrategy/article?article_id=141734) for more on this.

    So when people ask you what you do, it is a way of helping them make sense of this new person and figure them out. They are hoping you will give an answer that is familiar to them so that their brain can put you into a box and they can move on with conversation.

    But if you want them to remember your answer, then you should be unconventional.

    And if you want your brain to work harder that day, then you ask a more complicated question like “what gets you up in the morning? what keeps you up at night?”

  • During my childhood, I was schooled and Un-schooled, with the un-schooled portion being my favorite section of life. :) I was made to take the bus, go sit in the classroom to find many ways of fighting the routines, that were the mainstay of schooling. When I returned to our little country farm, I would un-school, as my own personal method of remaining “the real me”.

    I was my Father’s “right hand man” and my Mother’s “child slave” and when I was done doing all those demands, I would quickly return to my world of “Me”. What you describe as being un-schooled, the freedom to think and explore, that is what I did in my world time. It was actually a survival technique of mine, to reward or de-stress from the conventionally taught “jail time” of life, as commonly done in our modern world.

    I continue my un-schooling to this day and am having a great time. My little one, she goes to the conformist’s camp called school and she hates it tremendously. She is bullied and being taught to hate herself and to worry and fret over what others think of her. I hate seeing her being corrupted and her inner “me” being forced to conform… Time for change! I wish to thank you for writing and encouraging others to take the leap back to life. Thanks!

  • […] What Do You Do? – Un-schooled Awesome post about homeschoolers by someone who was homeschooled. […]

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