What Kind of Work Do You Do?

You might think I’m making this up, but I assure you that every word of this story is true…

A few years ago, my family and I went on vacation to Panama. It’s a beautiful country with amazing wildlife and lots of very nice people. We had a great time.

Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Spanish.

And so on the day we arrived, I turned to my then 17-year-old son Evan (the ranking Spanish speaker in the family) and asked him to teach me a phrase or two.

He asked me what I wanted to learn. I thought about it a little while and said, “Teach me how to say, ‘What kind of beer do you have?’ in Spanish.”

He told me, and over the next few days, I continually muttered my new phrase: “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

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Boating through the jungle, visiting an Embera village, playing cards at night, whatever. Over and over I said to nobody in particular: “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

Towards the end of the week, we visited a beautiful, starfish-covered, white sand beach that someone had directed us to. It was completely deserted – nobody around, in either direction, for as far as you could see.

My family went in the water in search of starfish; I sat on a towel watching.

After a couple of minutes I sensed someone standing behind me; I turned around and found myself face to face with an old man and a little boy.

They had been pushing a wheelbarrow down the beach. It was filled with ice and … loose bottles of beer for sale.

And so I looked at the man and, without letting on that this was, in fact, the one and only Spanish phrase in my possession, said, “Que tipo de cerveza tiene?”

He smiled and complimented me on my command of the language (as far as I could tell; I actually have no idea what he said), and I sat back down with a cold bottle of beer.

Now I don’t know if his arrival at that moment was just coincidence or if my incessant repeating of that single phrase all week conjured him up out of thin air. (I regret not having checked for wheeelbarrow tracks in the sand.)

Either way, I think you’d agree that learning a random Spanish phrase in the hope that at some point during the week I’d be in the perfect position to use it is clearly a low percentage bet.

But you know what’s a high percentage bet? … that at some point during each week someone will ask you, “What kind of work do you do?”

At the doctor’s office, at a business networking event, at an underinflated Superbowl party (sorry). Whatever the circumstances, people (Americans, anyway) ask each other what they do for a living.

When that happens, you have two options. You can either spit up whatever random blah, blah comes to mind in the moment or (recommended), you can take time now to figure something out and rehearse it.

Here, from my Practical and Tactical, Solo Professional Breakthrough Year course, are some sample answers (from real solo professionals) to the “What do you do?” question:

Margaret Cassidy: I’m an ethics and compliance lawyer. Companies hire me to keep them out of trouble.

Michelle Morris: I’m a financial planner. I specialize in helping single women make sense of their money and their taxes.

Diane Spadola: I am a face and body painter. I specialize in providing artistic entertainment for all ages that will make a special event more memorable.

Whatever you decide to say, keep it simple and rehearse it, word for word. Then try it with real people and see how it plays.

Here’s the bottom line. The “What kind of work do you do?” question comes without warning and the opportunity to answer it lasts for just a brief moment – there’s no time to check your notes and no point in just rambling aimlessly.

If you want people to understand what you do and, as important, remember it for longer than it takes to drink a beer on the beach, spend time now committing it to memory.

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