In the U.S., the ice-breaking question nearly universally asked when meeting someone for the first time is, “So, what do you do?” While rarely explicitly voiced, the question seems to almost always be understood as “What do you do for a living?”

In terms of ice-breakers, I suppose this is not bad. It’s easy and relatively safe to answer, unless you’re a mobster or spy or unemployed, though at least in that last case, it’s probably just awkward. Plus, as someone dependent for continued survival on the economic cooperation of others, I see the value in checking on how a new acquaintance contributes to our shared welfare. On the other hand, one could argue that this question and mindset treats others instrumentally, as mere means to mutual economic benefit, rather than intrinsically of value in themselves. On this view, a better ice-breaker might be one that creates an opening for disclosing some non-instrumental information. However, since I believe that value is relational, I’m not too concerned with the means-ends issue nor do I think trying to change everyone’s standard introductory question is a useful undertaking. Rather, the problem I have is with the standard answer.

Even though it’s also my default reply, I hate the typical response, “Oh, I’m an X for Y” where X is the work title you currently hold or some static descriptor of your occupation and Y is the organization for which you work. I have two problems with the typical response. Foremost is that I believe the “I am an X” formulation entangles personal identity with a given professional role too much and tends to close down conversation if the person to whom you’re speaking has no interest in or knowledge of that particular profession.

I suppose I could develop some clever response that answers the literal, not implied, question in a way that reveals my personality and passions and opens the conversation to more interesting avenues. I could say, “I’m a freelance philosopher.” That would provide an opening to reveal my ongoing interest and undergraduate training in philosophy, which is a broad topic on which I enjoy reading and conversing. It would also signal that I’m currently an independent professional, although my actual present income stream as a freelance IT consultant connects to my passion for philosophy only in very limited ways.

I suppose I could also ignore both the literal and implied question and take the conversation in a lighter direction. “Well, my superpower is organizing, so I tend to do that a lot, both professionally and personally. I create organizational systems to bring order out of chaos. How about you?” That’s not something I’ve yet tried, but it actually sounds like it might be fun.

As a more serious option, I also find appealing the idea of having a more compelling answer to that common question “What do you do?” in a way captures one’s professional aspirations and sidesteps the potentially self-limiting over-identification with one’s present occupation. This amounts to something like a professional mission statement, I suppose. The problem with mission statements, at least in the organizational context, is that they tend to be so generic as to be meaningless. Guy Kawasaki rails against mission statements for this reason and instead advocates adopting mantras. However, I find mantras useful only as inspirational slogans. The examples I’ve encountered are too short to meaningfully convey to others what you do and what you like or to even provide guidance to yourself in choosing what to choose given a set of opportunities. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown argues for creating an “Essential Intent” that is both inspirational and concrete. The trick is to find succinct, personally meaningful language that still sounds authentic to you and is readily understood by others. This turns out to be rather difficult, as evidenced by my concise but clunky attempts:

“I aspire to promote progress by creating scalable solutions to pernicious problems. I enjoy integrating strategy and systems with people and process to address issues in areas I care about: education, environment, economy, efficiency.”

or as a motto:

Promoting progress by creating scalable solutions to pernicious problems.
Strategy + Systems • People + Process
Efficiency • EdTech • EcoEconomy

Sadly, I cannot imagine actually saying that if asked, even though that succinctly captures my professional passion points.

So if statements of mission, mantra, or essential intent fall short, maybe the answer is to answer the question “What do you do?” with a question. In his A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger advocates creating mission questions rather than mission statements. He sees framing missions as questions rather than statements as much more open-ended and humble. While in the context I’m presently contemplating answering a question with a question may be just as awkward as anything else I’ve considered (unless the new acquaintence is a skilled in the game of Questions), I think framing my professional mission in terms of a question to be answered does make a great deal of sense, as in constantly engaging me with finding a (new) answer, it conveys the truth that the best missions are to be continuously striven for, not ever definitively achieved.

While I contemplate this potential inversion, let me ask the question:

“So, what do you do?”