I love loaded questions. They reveal more about the person asking them than the one trying to answer. It can be difficult to identify them.
‘What do you do?’ is one of my all time favourite.
I speak not of the rhetorical kind. Like the one where the daughter who has been tending to her aged father for years, knows he calls up every relative under the sun to inform them how terribly he is being looked after, and she asks her friend in exasperation—“what the fuck do you do?” The friend would be toast if she answered. It isn't an actual question.
I am talking about the literal question, one that is asked in a social setting or when you meet someone for the first time, where the f-word is usually omitted in the question, but is very much present in spirit: ‘Hello, nice to meet you. What do you do?’
Answering that has not always been easy for me. It was easy when I was in college. But even then, a back and forth would ensue.
“I’m studying fine arts.” I would answer. And nine times out of ten, the other person would say “Oh nice! MBA? Which B-school?’ and I would be quick to correct, “no no ‘Fine Arts’, not ‘finance’.” And they would pause for a bit, be horror stricken and proceed to awkwardly respond “oh… er… yeah… my 6 year old son loves to draw too.” Probably every Sunday from 10am to 10:30am, right before his finance class.
Back then, it always felt like the question was coming from an unimaginably boring old person, even if the one asking was in their twenties. Because no one of ‘collegeable age’ ever asked you that. And certainly not in a tone so formal that even Queen Elizabeth would hesitate to answer, who knows what she actually does. I have studied in colleges for so long, that I have seen responses go from ‘wow’ to ‘why’.
"Why are you doing a course in music at 30?!" Sigh. Well, why are your skill sets depleting even as you add years to your work experience and straitjacket your career in this dead end job and into oblivion? Because we can—I should speak for myself—because that is what I want to do.
It was fairly easy, even when I was a salaried employee, once upon a time. Even though I was terrible for the company and vice-versa, I hesitated putting in my papers for a full week. Because I was terrified of answering ‘what do you do?’ to family members who were more like strangers, should a distant cousin decide to tie the knot. And the distant relatives always sprang that up on you. I have since learnt that people spend a lifetime with colleagues they hate, only to be able to answer these questions at weddings or house-warming ceremonies, as they stand and watch the milk boil over.
Today, as I have gotten ‘unimaginably boring and old’ myself, answering ‘What do you do?’ has only gotten progressively tougher. You see, I have done a few things. Some fulfilling, some not so much. I have been an actor in some exceptional plays and some atrocious television serials. I have made a life sized sculpture that was so banal that my college gave me a certificate for it. I have performed with my college band in a few hundred shows, that once included the birthday party of a 17 year old. I have composed music for projects that never took off. I have assisted filmmakers who have had a terrible work ethic. I have made some documentaries, one that took so long to complete that the client regretted signing me on. I made a series of films for a company that made me lose all interest in advertising, even before my journey began. I have done odd gigs for a team building firm and asked myself ‘wtf am I doing?!’ while being on stage with a drum strapped to my body. I have tried to write something original for over a year and scrapped every idea that I dared to think of. And most importantly, I have done nothing for months on end, when I have pondered upon the questions of life and asked myself what it is that I want to do with my time here. Those, in particular, have been very special.
But somehow these answers never seem to satisfy the person who asks me, ‘What do you do?’
Why could that be? Is it because they are trying to find answers to questions they are not asking me?—
Like “How do you make money?”, “How much wealth could you have possibly accumulated till now?”, “How successful are you?”, “I can't place you. Where are you on the social totem pole?”, “Should I treat you with respect or snigger at you later in private?”, "How famous are you?"
Because nothing else explains the expectant look or further probing after I answer. And those in creative fields themselves are the worst. They instantly become career experts and stridently insist that I must seek the same things as them, to become as miserable.
The breaking news is that I'm doing whatever the hell I want to.
But I must admit, to their credit, it isn’t like I have been forthright in answering. I have hesitated, dilly-dallied and been apologetic while trying to explain what it is that I do.
Maybe it is time for me to be forthright. I need to give people the benefit of doubt and trust that I won’t be judged. So, next time someone asks me the question, maybe I should just be honest and answer:
"I hold an MBA with a focus on corporate finance. Here’s my twitter."
(Follow my newsletter Sunday Slant to really know what I do and give me unsolicited advice about how I should live my life.)