What do you do? Four little words. The standard, culturally acceptable opening question when you meet someone new. When I was working at a law firm, the answer was easy. “I’m a lawyer.” Not once did I get a quizzical look. Everyone has some notion of what “lawyer” means. But after I jumped into the world of social entrepreneurship, answering this simple question suddenly became surprisingly hard.
“I’m a social entrepreneur” was the answer that best captured my experience creating, launching and running City Hall Fellows, a local government service corps. But few people I met were familiar with this term. Reactions ranged from blank stares to questions like: “so you work with social media?” More often than not, I found myself explaining, and often defending, social entrepreneurship. And because I was on a networking warpath to build my organization, I was introducing myself to everyone who crossed my path – the stranger at a party, the person sitting next to me on the airplane, my friend’s uncle who worked at a foundation and might know someone who could help me. Even though I really love teaching people about social entrepreneurship, having this same conversation dozens of times a week quickly became tedious.
Responding “I’m a nonprofit executive” didn’t feel right. While technically true, it didn’t begin to capture my experience. The image of a staid professional at a traditional, established nonprofit bore little resemblance to my start-up, bootstrapped, work-from-anywhere, chase-down-every-rabbit-hole, working 24-7-365, fueled-by-nothing-but-passion existence.
I eventually settled on answering with a short version of my elevator pitch for City Hall Fellows – “I’m founder and ED of a national service corps that engages and empowers recent college grads to lead our cities.” This answer seemed to satisfy most people – at least those whose eyes didn’t glaze over three words in. It also led to a lot of great conversations about my organization. As a social entrepreneur, what could be better, right? Every new person I met instantly became a potential donor, supporter, ally or applicant. But therein also lay the problem. Every conversation with every new person I met – from my new next-door neighbor to my kids’ pediatrician – started off with me pitching. It was exhausting to always be “on.” I started not to feel right always leading with the organization. City Hall Fellows was a big part of what I did, but it wasn’t all I did.
I thought answering this question would get easier when, 18 months ago, I took a sabbatical to serve in the Obama Administration as a White House Fellow. It didn’t; it got even harder. Beyond the hundreds of new people I now meet annually in the normal course of work and life, Fellowship program events required me to formally introduce myself – and answer “what do you”– hundreds of additional times.
I could no longer cop out with a short pitch for City Hall Fellows; I had moved on. I was neither a political appointee nor a career Fed – terms laden with implications of career paths that bore no resemblance to mine. And even fewer people have a conception of what a White House Fellow is than have a conception of what a social entrepreneur is.
I was agonizing over how to answer in this new context when it hit me why I found these four little words so vexing.
We tend to define people, to categorize them in our minds, by their answer to the question “what do you do?” I was chafing at the challenge to succinctly define myself. The meaning of the question had morphed for me from “what is your professional function” to “who are YOU and what makes you tick?” Leading with the latter facilitates far more meaningful connections, which I was eager for after years of shallow introductions. But an honest answer requires serious soul-searching, which I wasn’t sure I was ready for. Still, I knew I was done with defining myself solely by my professional function. I wanted people to know more of me. And I wanted to know more of them.
So I spent the last year trying on a range of answers. I introduced myself variably as a lawyer-by-training and social entrepreneur-by-trade; a big-firm lawyer-turned-social entrepreneur; a national service corps founder; and a social change agent passionate about civic engagement and developing active citizens for our democracy. I tried out different descriptions of City Hall Fellows. A few times, I led with the fact that I am the mom of two active little girls. I tested out incorporating my Jewish heritage, my Louisiana roots, and my stint in city government. Once I even introduced myself as the guy sitting next to me.
Much to my surprise, I was having fun. I wasn’t feeling crushed by the paralyzing identity crisis I had feared. Instead, the challenge that seemed so daunting at first had given me an opportunity for constant reinvention. A chance to try out how different aspects of my identity fit together. I began to give myself permission to not cram myself into a single sentence. Permission not to have a one-size-fits-all identity. I began to relax, to breathe easier when the question arose, to focus on the people I was meeting rather than on the words coming out of my own mouth.
If you asked me today, I might answer that I’m enjoying a self-imposed personal sabbatical to recharge after seven personally and professionally intense years. Or I might tell you that I’m on the cusp of an exciting new professional adventure. And then I’d ask you: so, what do you do?
This post was originally published January 29, 2014 on UnSectored, a community platform for re-thinking social change, as part of a series on Martyrdom in Social Change: Seeking Personal Sustainability.