What Do You Do?

February 28, 2021

There I am in the backseat of a familiar Uber Black. I´m exhausted. I can tell it is somewhere around 11p.m. based on the number of cars on the road. My ride to the hotel will take 16-18 minutes and I´m thinking: I better make them productive.

I know that whatever I don't finish now will need to be done when I get back to my hotel room after checking in, slipping into comfy clothes, and ordering greasy chicken fingers from room service again. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen tonight.

I pull out my laptop to get started, squint towards the road while my eyes get adjusted to the life sucking white screen, and alt+tab my way to my PowerPoint window to start writing tomorrow's talking points. We are supposed to be doing a "transformation" project, but everybody knows this is cost-cutting in management consultant speak. It is the opposite of motivating, but it is my first "case" and I must make a good impression because I worked diligently to be here. I continue to crank the work out but accidentally make eye contact with the driver in the rear-view mirror. He takes this as an invitation to satiate his curiosity and asks:

"What are you working on this late at night? What do you do?"

Here we go again (short-sigh) …I finish formatting the table I had shifted my attention to and prepare my answer while ignoring how uncomfortable I am. The reason for my discomfort is not the frequency with which I get asked this question, the implicit judgement about my age (I fully acknowledge that I have a baby face), or even the fact that it is none of the driver´s business to know what I do. The reason why I hate it so much is that I don't have an answer and, when I attempt to find one, I have to grapple with some of my most vulnerable fibers around Why I do what I do.

I reply with the most traditionally boring words I can find: "I work in accounting for pharma companies" (consultants are encouraged to not say what they are working on). I aim to get a response like "Oh, cool", "That's good money", or “You must be smart”. The driver replied “Oh you must have gone to a good school to do that”. Good enough! Bullet dodged, now back to work.

The unpolished but accurate answer was "I gather information from various sources (data rooms, clients, expert calls, etc.) and make pretty slides that offer suggestions about a business to our clients". This answer, while true, never satisfied the question I felt I was being asked. Why do I do what I do? Why was I spending my time doing this? Why was this valuable to myself & others?

The real reason Why I was in consulting was simple. Fear. Let me explain...

I was the product of one of the best mimetic instruments out there: The Elite American College. I was an excellent sheep and I had a deep fear of what could happen if I pursued the path less traveled. Out the window went my passion for the built environment, social entrepreneurship, developing economies, class mobility, my family, and meaningful friendships. I opted for a career that others would catalogue as successful.

Over time, my lack of a compelling “Why” wore on my desire to show up and do my job the way I was expected to do it. I knew going into the job that it wouldn´t motivate me or satisfy any of my long-term goals, but I thought that 2 years of further building my resume with another big name couldn´t hurt. Eventually, I got the courage to leave my job as a consultant with the conviction that I couldn't make the same mistake again.

Management consulting did teach me the value of structured frameworks for decision making, so I've come up with my own framework for Why I do things. I have three criteria: joy, tranquility, and energy.

Joy. Moments of joy are memorable and tangible. You can't fake your way into feeling joy. I found that there were many moments when I thought of myself as happy (because I wasn't sad) but many fewer moments of true joy.

Some of my most joyful memories include a hug from a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, the taste of something delicious and foreign after a long day of traveling, the feeling of understanding a great piece of writing, and the moment I learned my brother was going to have a child. None of these moments of joy were thanks to consulting. I realized if I wanted more joy in my life I had to seek it out in the professional realm as well. Joy can´t be a side job.

Tranquility. Tranquil means free from disturbance and I seek tranquility by avoiding people, actions, or circumstances that create inner commotion. Being in a career that I knew didn´t match my passions created conflict within me and being far away from my family when they needed me made me feel irresponsible. I learned to lean into emotions that made me feel present and provide stability.

Energy. I now choose to do things that bring me energy and avoid things that take away my energy. Orchestrating a sales launch where the adrenaline focuses me in the present moment and makes time disappear. Mentoring an employee and realizing that their work´s before & after are so different that every minute we spent together was worth it. Leaving a meeting feeling like I won a chess match with an elegant strategy.

Using these criteria as a gut check before making a decision has helped me live more meaningfully. Times where I don't hear a resounding “Yes” for all three criteria need continuous monitoring and redirection. In contrast, when I do find a situation that has the potential to increase all three criteria, I lean into it and brace myself for an exciting ride.

So, what now?

A couple of weeks ago I sat next to a chatter on an airplane. Most of the time I am ready to wear my headphones and turn on the noise cancellation feature but I decided that nobody needs less social interaction during a pandemic. It would be nice to learn something about the woman sitting next to me and find some common ground. This was a short flight and I decided it couldn´t hurt.

After a bit of the usual small talk the woman asked: “So, what do you do? Why are you traveling?”

I waited a couple seconds before I answered. The intonation was very telling, she was more curious about the first question than the second.

I wasn't uncomfortable when I heard the question. I wasn´t anxious or hopeful that the conversation would end there. My heart wasn't racing. I took my time because I wanted to be mindful of the contrasting reaction I had when I heard this question in the past.

This time I had my guiding principles for what I was doing and that was more than enough. The big change was that the question came with a lot less discomfort than it used to. I didn't feel like an impostor. The bits of discomfort that remained were from remembering the times when I didn't have this framework and from the fear of not applying it again.

I replied with a concise statement without feeling the need to say more: “I work with my family in a construction and real estate business.”

I am satisfied with the short answer (and so is the stranger sitting next to me). I know it has taken time and effort to grow into what I do today and I am excited to share more if the conversation takes me there.