It's the question that people are often asked. Some instinctively know how to answer it well. But most don't. The fact is, the question is so open-ended that it's almost like a trick question. Any answer is right, technically, but most answers are boring and so therefore, probably detrimental to your career.
The problem for most of us is that our lives are long and complicated, and it's hard to know what's most important.
Here are some tips:
When someone says to you, "What do you do?" it's an invitation to you to give your elevator pitch about you. And elevator pitch, it should be noted, is called that because you should be able to start and finish the answer to the question in the time it takes to ride in an elevator.
Entrepreneurs have to be ready at all times to catch someone in an elevator who can fund their company, and then pitch that person, on the spot, to convince them to hear more about the company later.
So the answer to the question should be only a few sentences. If they are good sentences, the person will ask for more info. If you can't give a good answer in less than a minute, then you have no idea how to talk about yourself when someone wants to talk longer.
2. Convey self-respect.
It's hard to cover up self-doubt when you feel it. But talking about yourself in a framework of self-doubt does not make you honest - it makes you boring. Because we all have self-doubt. It's natural to have self-doubt. It's an accomplishment to figure out how to work around it and still get things done. What it interesting about each of us is how to get around the self-doubt. Talk about that.
When I was married to my ex-husband, and people would ask me what he does, I'd say, "I don't know." I think my answer revealed the inevitable demise of our marriage. Because having an answer to the question is a sign of self-respect - for ones spouse or for oneself.
3. Know your audience.
There is no one, single, right way to describe "what you do." The key is to tailor your answer to your audience. And the way to know which answer is best for which audience is knowing your list of possibilities. Then, you can choose your one-sentence summary from the list you have in your head. For example, if you paint at home and you are a sales person, your summary of your life includes painting AND sales if you're interviewing for a sales position at an art company. But if you're interviewing at a software company? Your summary does not include painting.
4. Leave out boring stuff.
When people ask you what do you do, they are really asking, "what is interesting about you?" So you don't need to confess that you stay in bed until noon and then watch movies for five hours. Retail may be a great way to support yourself when you are trying to figure out what's next. And moving back into your parents house is a smart, conservative step in a wacky economy. But you don't need to tell people this stuff. It's not going to reveal interesting things about you.
Talk about that one hour, toward the end of the day, when you finally motivate yourself to do something. What if your most interesting work occurs outside of your day job? That's okay. You should talk about what excites you and what you're passionate about, even if this is something you don't get paid for. People are not asking about money when they "what do you do?" they are asking about passion.
5. Show off your expertise.
Trying lots of jobs on for size is a great way to figure out what you want to do next. In fact, dilletantism might be the best career change tool around. But it should be a path to specializing. Because ultimately, specialists are the people who are most successful in the work world.
So you might be tempted to tell people how you do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Don't. But instead, force yourself to talk about your career like you're a specialist.
6. Hire a career coach to help you tell stories.
I think everyone needs a career counselor at some point in their life, and the reason is that they need help shaping their story. We should each make choices that feel right at a given time and not worry about our story, but then we should be great at crafting our story to make sense of our lives after the fact.
Most people have coherent stories, but they don't see it. Their resumes are a mess and their elevator pitch is a bore. Hire a professional to help you make a story that makes sense for where you want to go.
And, in the end, the only way we get where we want to be is to tell ourselves stories of what we look like on that path. So if you want to chase your dreams, first chase that elusively enchanting elevator pitch.