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(Flickr photo by Emily Rose)
(Flickr photo by Emily Rose)

“What do you do?”

The classic get-to-know-you question is designed to extract information about your job, that thing you spend a lot of your time doing. But it doesn’t work anymore.

Let’s kill it.

I have another question I’d rather be asked — as do many of you.

But first, a few reasons why “What do you do?” won’t do:

  • It’s understood as “What do you do for a living?” and ranks paycheck activities above all others in the get-to-know-you hierarchy.
  • It assumes permanence and stability when our economy and values pave choppier paths.
  • It pins your identity to a job instead of pinning a job to your bigger, evolving identity.
  • It loads the resume, an automatic output given time and time again.
  • The person may not have a job at the moment, which is awkward to explain in this context.
  • The person may not care about what they do for a living. But they have to tell you anyway.

“What do you do?” is an old question from an old time. Its assumptions are stale, and we need an upgrade.

What else works? A few of you shared alternatives on Facebook this week (thanks!).

From safest to toughest, try adding these to the mix:

1. What are you working on (these days)? 

Amanda Koster

This question is:

  • All-inclusive: It extends beyond “work” work.
  • Open-ended: The person can take it wherever they want to go.
  • Timely: It can be asked again next month (add “these days” to all these questions for the same boost)

And the person you ask can steer it almost anywhere she wants to go. It might be the safest, easiest “What do you do?” alternative.

2. What do you like to do?

“You can ask a 4 year old, a CEO, a homeless person. And sometimes you will discover common ground.” — Valerie Craig

This question is:

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun: It zeroes in on pleasant things.
  • Insightful: It’s a better way to begin to map a sense of self.

People open up when they talk about stuff they like, though you may need an extra nudge to get work-related answers. We tend to believe the things we enjoy can’t also be work. Silly us.


3. What are you thinking about?

“Play, ideas, emotions, and expression are a far more interesting starting place than verbal LinkedIns.” — Brett Horvath

This question is:

  • All-inclusive.
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising: It makes them go off script.

Thoughts feel light next to big, heavy jobs, but they shift nicely moment to moment and reveal all kinds of things. Asking about them, instead of about someone’s activities, is a neat idea.

4. What are you passionate about?

“You wind up learning much more about who the person is.” — Berit Anderson

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising.
  • Challenging: Tougher to answer than what’s on your business card.

Not everyone can spout off their passions, and you don’t want to make people work too hard, but just being asked something like this can help you figure it out. Who knows? You might walk away from the conversation knowing more than when you came in.

5. What are you building?

building11“It keeps the focus on an activity — not an identity  —and makes it easy for the person who asks to come up with ways to help.” — OK, this was me

  • All-inclusive
  • Open-ended.
  • Fun.
  • Insightful.
  • Surprising.
  • Challenging.
  • Goal-oriented

It’s not a one size fits all by any means, but after hanging out with a few entrepreneurs I really admire, I’ve realized this is the question I most want to ask and be asked. It doesn’t just get to what you’re doing, liking and thinking about, but also pushes you to think about what we’re building as a product of your passions. (Check out the Facebook thread to see how some Seattleites answered this one.)

Got another “What do you do?” upgrade that works? Let’s hear it.

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