In 2014, I met a woman at a UN party in Manhattan who asked, “What do you do for a living?” to which I gave the rehearsed, “I’m looking for a position in the non-profit sector, but in the meantime I host at [A Restaurant] in Midtown.” She turned to her ambassador friends and blessedly introduced me as a Hospitality Specialist. It was incredibly kind of her to alter my title a bit to make me seem more accomplished, but why did my job have to define my person? I’ve come to loathe the question, “What do you do?”
That kind woman learned so little about me in the exchange. She didn’t learn that I went to school for International Relations and Sociology, or that I spent every weekend I could hiking, or that I had gotten certified to teach English as a second language, or that my desires to alleviate suffering from the innocent is so often what keeps me up at night. She didn’t learn that my passions weren’t so different from hers or that I’d gladly trade my heels for work boots if it meant I got to put a smile on someone’s face.
The people I meet today miss out on the same information when I answer their “What do you do for a living?” with “I archive digital images for a media company.” What we do isn’t always what we’re passionate about. Sometimes it’s what lands in our laps when we’re living on our parents’ couch with $37 to our name. Sometimes what we do becomes something we care greatly about, but it is still so often only a small part of who we are.
What I do keeps me productive and engaged while it pays the bills, but what I love keeps me up at night reading, writing, editing photos, and researching. When people ask me what I do I tell them what pays the bills, but I don’t tell them that come April I’ll be ditching the bills along with my 9–5 job to hike from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail..
I don’t tell them that grounding myself in nature and carrying everything I own on my back for 5 months is more important to me than any salary I could earn behind a desk or that challenging myself to live outside of societal norms excites my soul. I don’t tell them that the fear I have of the great wilderness I’ll encounter is nothing compared to the fear I have of settling for normal. I don’t tell them that if I can convince one person to go outside instead of playing video games or to take their trash with them instead of leaving it on the trail, I feel like my day has had purpose. I don’t tell them what gives my life meaning, because that isn’t what they ask.