Asked by a 92-year-old man, this question had so much oomph behind it I barely knew how to respond.
“Well, I guess you could say…I enjoy ‘em!”
Laughter filled the conversation and after quickly recovering, the man follows up with a smile and says, “But seriously, Mike, what do you do for a living?”
It was a great moment - turns out that moment would change my life.
See, I’m sick of people asking the mundane, “so what do you do?” immediately upon meeting someone new. It’s often the first thing out of someone’s mouth after introducing themselves. The problem with this question is that it sets us up for immediate judgement. Whether good or bad, exciting or boring, engaging or disconnecting, this question is a surefire way to make sure we self-identify and self-label, which opens the door for judgement against preconceived ideas of what someone’s life is like.
What’s worse than the labeling, though, is the fact that people immediately pass judgement upon learning the smallest bit of information about someone’s life. I know for a fact that when my girlfriend hears “I’m in finance,” she loses interest. Not because of the person saying it, but because she just does not know what to follow that up with. It’s not her world, and therefore the conversation pretty much dies (which makes me sad because I was once in finance!).
But getting back to the initial question… the man who asked me the question was named Uncle Joe. He is my girlfriend’s great uncle and he recently passed away. Turns out, he was a famous composer and upon his passing, he was written about in the New York Times. No Big Deal.
While Uncle Joe was famous for his musical compositions and life contributions, what most people don’t know is that he changed my life. By asking me such a simple question, he completely reframed the possible ways one human being could approach another.
What’s great about “how do you spend your days?” is that it’s genuine. It’s not fishing for a specific answer. It’s open and accepting of all responses. Even my cute “I enjoy them!” is a valid response.
By asking people how they spend their days, what we’re really asking them is “what’s your life like?”. We’re attempting to dig below the surface and truly learn what someone cares about, where their interests lie, and how they choose to spend their time. These responses will always be more valuable than a simple response to the simple question “so what do you do?”.
In effort to make this story anecdotal, I urge you to attempt to adopt this sentiment the next time you meet someone. While many people are caught up in their own lives trying to make “connections” and “work a room,” please keep in mind that the best way to build a relationship is to learn about the other person and listen to them. By asking an open-ended question that allows people to formulate a non-generic response, you’ll gain more information right off the bat than most people gain throughout an entire conversation - and this is where relationships begin.
So go out, meet people, ask the question, listen to their responses, and maybe even share the story. I’ve yet to meet a person who hasn’t been captivated by the story behind the question, and people always follow it up by saying they’re going to adopt it into their conversations.
As I prepare to head out to Pittsburgh for Uncle Joe’s memorial service, I know today will be a day full of emotion. What’s interesting is that I barely knew the guy — only met him once — but his question has lingered with me since. I’ve managed to tell the story a few dozen times, and I always get the same reaction.
“I love that!” “What a great question.” “I’m going to use that from now on.”
Rest in peace, Uncle Joe.
You’ll forever be remembered as the man who affirmed my belief that there’s more to life than defining who I am by “what I do for a living.”