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Do you confuse what you do with who you are?

4 min read


What is the first question you are asked when you meet someone at a business or social function?  “Hi, my name is …. What do you do?”

If you are the VP, CEO or have another prestigious title, the answer comes automatically and easily often with a tone of pride in your voice. Let’s dissect the conversation for a moment and notice you aren’t really answering the question in the way it’s being asked. In our culture, we often answer the “What do you do?” question with an “I am …” answer.  Never mind that in doing so, we aren’t really answering the question; more importantly, is what you do really who you are?

Headed for dangerous territory

How you answer this question gives the listener information about what you do and who you are, based on your title, position, status. It tells them in a few words where you are in the food chain.  But what if you don’t have an answer for “what do you do?” because you are unemployed, retired or in a career transition?

Having worked with many recently laid off, fired and retired CEOs on how to answer the “Who am I (now)?” question, I have seen this now hard to answer question comes with a heavy price tag: an identity crisis.  This identity crisis is often accompanied by feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness, boredom, irritability, depression or anxiety.  The good news is, that for many executive coaching clients, what starts out as a problem opens up a world of possibilities, satisfaction and peace of mind going forward.

A leadership challenge of a different kind

What difference would it make if you responded to “What do you do?” with a slightly surprising twist? What if we started a movement of sorts and, one by one, conversation by conversation, we played a little game and each of us changed things up a bit?  It could sound something like this:

Them:  “Hi, my name is …. I am the president of XYZ Company. What do you do?”
You:  “Nice to meet you.   My name is Jack and:
“I am a terrific husband.”
“I am a proud mother.”
“I am a good friend.”
“I am absolutely content and happy!”
“Today, I am making a difference by …”

First, notice the puzzled or surprised look on their faces because your answer will not be what they are expecting to hear. Congratulations — you are now a rule-breaker (it’ll be fun, I promise).  The point is when you answer the “What do you do?” question this way, it wouldn’t matter if you had a title, job or position (or if you did), because if you are a character-based leader, who you are won’t change with your circumstances. And most importantly, you won’t be furthering your future identity crisis.

The obvious problem is you might not have the answer on the tip of your tongue. So how can you be prepared for this challenge? Here’s a simple, five-step process so you can be prepared and confidently answer the “What do you do?” question with an “I am …” answer anywhere, anytime:

  • Ask yourself “Who am I?
  • Say the answer right now, out loud.
  • Ask it again.
  • Answer again.
  • Repeat (because practice makes perfect!)

Which answer do you feel most comfortable with in your bones?  What’s always true, no matter what happens?  Practice with that one at least 30 times. Notice the response you get. Let’s have some fun with this and let others know how it goes by leaving your comments below.

Christina Haxton is a leadership speaker, consultant and trainer, a co-author of the upcoming book “The Character Based Leader: Instigating a Leadership Revolution One Person at a Time.” Haxton blogs at Sustainable Leadership and tweets @christinahaxton