I used to really envy people who had a clear one-word answer to the dreaded small-talk question, “And what do you do?” I longed to be able to provide some brief statement – “attorney,” “rocket scientist,” “teacher” – but instead for years have stumbled over my response.
In my late twenties, I went to a reading at a local bookstore by someone in my high school class who’d gone on to an Ivy League school and written a celebrated best seller. I had a four-year-old and an administrative job in a non-profit. I don’t know what I thought would happen when I stepped up with my book for her to sign. It’s not like we had been besties in high school or anything, but I didn’t expect to have to re-introduce myself. But the worst part, though, was when she looked up from the page and asked, “And what do you do?” I mumbled something about being a mother and got out of there as fast as possible.
I thought this difficulty in answering was because for years, my job, what I did for money, which is what this question is really getting at, wasn’t really all “me,” but more an expedient means to an end. But now, now that I have my own business and am mistress of my time, I see that my job wasn’t the issue even then.
I still don’t have a satisfactory one-word retort, and I likely never will.
And honestly, NONE of us really has a one-word answer.
So naturally I loved this passage in Jeff Goins’ new book, The Art of Work:
The truth is I do all these things [write, speak, run a website selling online products] – they are all a part of me in their own way. And although each task might be hard to fit into a single job description, this is what I do. I learned there is a term for such a lifestyle, and it’s not ADHD.
“It’s called a portfolio life,” my friend Kevin told me
“A what?” I said.
“A portfolio life. It means that you aren’t just a writer or a husband or a dad. You are all those things, and you need to embrace them.”
“Oh,” I said. “Cool.”
Yep, all this time that’s what I’ve had: a portfolio life. Oh, it all makes so much more sense now.
Portfolio life, as Jeff explains, is a reflection of the true complexity of human beings. “People are not robots, programmed to do one thing. We are multifaceted creatures with many varied interests. And though we may like to believe we were born to do just one thing, or perhaps we’re comfortable with only having one career, the reality is that most of us are hardwired for a handful of activities that when combined lead to our greatest satisfaction and best work.” Your work is not your job.
Leading a portfolio life means that your true work is this composite of everything you do, that particular portfolio of paid and unpaid work that makes your life what it is.
A Board member at a job I had a few years ago invited me to connect on LinkedIn. I’d recently made an effort to amplify my profile there, nervously adding in my beekeeping and yoga and personal blog, trying to better reflect my range of skills and interests. The next time I saw that Board member, he greeted me with more warmth and announced to the assembled group, “Wow, Ariane, you do a LOT of stuff.”
It’s true: I do a lot of stuff. In the last 5 days alone, I’ve made and sold honey and beeswax-based personal care products under my Blissbug brand at a pop-up sale, launched the website for and grown my bookkeeping and strategy business, written 3,000 words, read two books, been to 4 yoga classes, swooned over Karl Ove Knausgaard at City Arts & Lectures, tended my garden, hiked, come up with a handful of ideas and blog posts and partnerships and products to sell. And tried my best to be a good friend, good wife, good mother, good daughter And failed, as usual, at getting enough sleep.
So I can’t, I just can’t, give a one-word answer that encompasses it all, everything I do, everything I love, everything I am. And I’ll bet really, that no one’s one-word answer is the end all-be all. When we answer with one word, we’re selling short, leaving out, so many aspects of ourselves.
And many times, truly, those things we're leaving out? They're the most important bits, the bits that make us tick, that make us Us.
I'm done with trying to find a pithy answer to that silly question. Next time someone asks me What Do You Do, this is what I'll say: Oh me? I lead a Portfolio life. How much time you got?