"The career question that made me unravel in my twenties."

Back in 2010, I still had no idea what I was doing in my career. (Source: Supplied.)

It was the question that I dreaded throughout my twenties and people seemed to ask me at every social occasion.

“What do you do?”

I hated that question because I didn’t have an answer. And if I did have an answer I often felt embarrassed about it because I rarely had a career path that I was happy with.

I knew I wasn’t alone in this, too. None of my friends knew what they were doing with their careers and it was a cause of guilt and stress. We all had degrees which was already a huge head start and privilege. And yet, we either struggled to find jobs in our field of study, or had realised after three or four years of uni that we would be terrible architects/speech pathologists/designers/etc.

We were ready to step out as independent adults, but our lack of full-time jobs or direction meant that we were still living at home with our parents… who asked us variations of that question: “What do you want to do?” and “Are you going to do anything?”

Jessica Rowe, and the advice she would like to share with others. (Post continues after video.)

It’s a funny little question. It’s often used as a way to get to know someone, or to fit a new person into a category in our heads. In my early 20s, that simple enquiry of what I “did” felt like it would expose everything about me – that I was unsure, possibly failing and not really wanting to do anything significant.

One of the most popular questions that we ask young children is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Now that I’m a mum, it surprises me how early we can place expectations and ambitions on children.

Since my daughter was born, people have asked me what I think she’ll “do” for a career. Considering she’s still wearing nappies, I think it’s reasonable that I don’t have an answer yet.

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There have been times in my life when I’ve wanted a career path and a chance so badly that I’ve cried. Then, there were periods when I didn’t have any ambitions and I was content to work to live, rather than live to work. Yet the question of “what do you do?” still rattled me because each time I answered, it seemed to reveal a personal flaw.


If I explained that I was trying to be an actress I’d then have to acknowledge that no, you couldn’t see me on TV or in movies, because I was awful in auditions. If I said that I was working in retail and happy to keep doing so, I’d be asked why I wasn’t using my design degree and then asked if I’d considered managing a local store.

This meant that an event like a party could turn into an uncomfortable pep-talk or careers brainstorming session with a well-meaning stranger.

Remember when Marnie from "Girls" desperately wanted to be a singer? (Source: HBO)

Although kindly meant, the “what do you do” question can sometimes be used as a misplaced barometer of success. This can cause tension in conversations especially when we feel “successful” in such different ways. My mistake then was to allow my “success” to be measured by my occupation rather than my personal qualities.

The question actually doesn’t bother me any more because I’m feeling confident in my life and choices, which is a benefit of being in my 30s. For anyone who is bothered by that question, I think it’s handy to remember that times of confusion and uncertainty will pass. This comes with new opportunities or simply the passing of time.

One night, I was idly watching The Voice when a contestant asked Ricky Martin another simple question: “How are you?”

Ricky answered, “I’m grateful.”

At the time I guffawed at his answer because it was just such a typical, cheesy pop star response. Also, I think Ricky was wearing an all-white ensemble that was a bit of an assault on the eyeballs. But I can also see the wisdom behind his thoughtful response.

Do you love life as much as Ricky Martin does?

Because now, when people ask me what I “do”, I often think of the things that I’m truly working on and striving for.

The things that I “do” are cuddle my daughter in the middle of the night when she wakes up feeling hungry and scared. Another thing that I “do” is try to be a source of moral support and love for my husband.

As I get older, I’m reminded that I’m seeking something more than a job title. My actions have more meaning and purpose beyond achieving status and money.

So when people ask me what I want my daughter to “be”, I’ll tell them that I want her to be happy and fulfilled, and to feel loved and supported by her parents.

When people ask her that question, they’ll get an answer which is perhaps too philosophical for the structures of adulthood: she says she wants to be “pink”, her favourite colour.

How do you feel when you're asked, "What do you do?" Does it bother you, or is it not an issue?