What Do You Do?

January 14, 2010

How do you answer when you are asked “So… what do you do?”

The question, of course, assumes a conflation between who we are and what we do. Not an unreasonable assumption for many of us, and it’s a little less awkward for both parties than asking “So… who are you really? Tell me about your interests, your abilities, your values.”

Perhaps the question is also used to help us sort people out: “Do I file you under Banker or Gardener?” And that’s where we start running into problems, because that Banker may feel most alive, most true to herself, when she is working in her garden (although I do find it hard to conceive of a Gardener who dabbles in banking when he comes home… but maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part). We are, each of us, too complex to describe ourselves by simply giving our job title.

We have created all these terms. On the one side we have: Job, Career, Vocation, Calling, Profession. On the other side there are: Hobby, Avocation, Pastime, Diversion. For my part, I have used many names to describe what I do over the years, but I’ve rarely been able to give anyone that simple one-word, file-me-under-this title. Part of the problem is that I have never really felt much of a distinction between what I do professionally and what I do for fun… they are intertwined.

A story:

As a teenager I was an avid cyclist. All my free time seemed to be spent either riding my bike, reading Bicycling magazine, or working on my bike or my friend’s bikes. When I was sixteen I started working part-time as a bike mechanic at a local bicycle shop. At nineteen a friend and I took an extended bike trip. We headed south from Michigan without any real plans, reaching New Orleans before we ran out of money. Three years later I was working at a bike shop in New Orleans, and spending my free time learning to build bicycle frames. I found that the metal-working skills which I had learned making jewelry at my alternative high school, applied directly to brazing together the joints of a bike frame. I eventually opened my own bicycle shop in Biloxi Mississippi, and one of the services I offered was bicycle frame repair and repainting.

A parallel story:

As a seventeen-year-old in high school, I met a young couple who built mountain dulcimers and sold them at craft fairs. We hit it off, and they agreed to teach me how to build dulcimers, I was even able to get school credit for it. So, for the next several months, I rode my bike to their shop two afternoons a week and gained my first experience at fine woodworking. I fell in love with the process, the workshop, the exotic woods, the tools. I worked for a few years in my late teens and early twenties doing anything-for-a-buck carpentry based on the experience I gained in that shop. And then, a couple of years later, my boss at that bike shop in New Orleans, knowing about my woodworking experience, asked me build a bookcase unit to go by his desk in the back room. And many years later, as professional woodworker, a friend paid me to make a dulcimer for his daughter.

Where in these stories can we draw the line between Vocation and Avocation, between Job and Hobby. It’s all twisted together, and I don’t think I’m unique here. Side projects become part of a career. Skills learned for pleasure influence a job choice. And sometimes, things that that we will never get paid for are the most important part of who we are.

So, what do I do? I’m glad you asked… I’m a Designer/Furnituremaker/Woodworker/Metalworker/Student/Mentor/Artist/Luthier/Bike Mechanic/Baker/Brewer/Sausage-maker/Coffee-roaster (and I know you didn’t ask, but I am also a Husband/Father/Grandfather/Friend).