Income-Independent Identities

5 December 2012. Filed under category Life.
Clark Kent, so much more than a journalist.

Clark Kent, not just a journalist.

Have you ever reflected over how we define and label each other and ourselves? The most common opening line at a cocktail party is, “What do you do?” But what people really mean is, “What do you do for a living?”

We are so used to valuing things in money that we–subconsciously–label people by the way they generate income. But this is horribly reductive, especially against people who are unemployed or whose work is misaligned with their interests.

This has been a long-held opinion of mine, but I really felt the sharp edge of it when I left the bank to become a nomad. When I now reply to the ubiquitous, “What do you do?” I say that I am a nomad. This never goes down well. The immediate follow up question is always, “But how do you make money doing that?”

It is starting to piss me off. I think that my nomadic lifestyle is rather interesting, but if you reduce me down to my paid work then I am, at least for the moment, simply unemployed.

I’m not saying that we must divulge every hidden corner of our soul when presenting ourselves. Of course we need a shorthand way of painting a quick estimation of who we are, in a minute or two. But does it have to be so focused on our income?

The next time you meet someone, ask “What do you like to do?” This gives him or her the freedom to express what they think is important, be it their work or hobby. Trust me; you’ll learn more about your new friend this way.

Travel Updates

I’ve set up home in Wellington in a great place where I can live for free. (Thanks Jono!) I’m enjoying having some personal space for a change. I’m taking this opportunity to get a lot of work done. Since I’m low on web-design clients, I’m instead working on improving the blog.


Does your work accurately reflect who you are?

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  1. Jen Procter says:

    I’ll never forget when someone asked me, “So, what do you like to talk about?” what a great alternative to the “what do you do/money/boring/drag” of a conversation. I said, “well, I like to talk about art and animals”. Turns out, her husband is an artist. I will never forget her name.
    I don’t necessarily think that we’re all interested in what we do for money or to make a living, but that perhaps we are just lacking in social skills and imagination a bit.
    Many people are nervous when meeting someone for the first time as well, (we’re more and more used to email and texts than real conversation) and that leads to shy and boring conversation starters. It takes a certain amount of courage these days to just come out and say, “I’m a hypnotherapist.” I love to talk about hypnotherapy though, so of course I love the “what do you do?” question!

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Thanks for the comment Jen. (new here right? Welcome!)

      Good point about there being other reasons for that opening line. Yes, perhaps it is just down to being shy or lack social skills. It is often easier to stay with the default question than come up with an unexpected one. Still, at some point our culture, with it’s focus on our income, made that the default question. High time we change it! 🙂

  2. Casey says:

    “Of course we need a shorthand way of painting a quick estimation of who we are, in a minute or two. But does it have to be so focused on our income”

    The problem, as you’ve discovered, with attempting to condense our lifestyle into a digestible chunk for others is that the reference point is different. So, in a few words, not only do we need to paint a picture of who we are, we need to re-frame the conversation onto a different canvas using a different medium (butchered that metaphor, hah, sorry).

    Have you ran across “On Being an Illegible Person”? It’s a deeper exploration of this concept. Great brain food.

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Casey (welcome to you too!), many sincere thank-yous for that link. It is the best writing I’ve ever read on the topic of nomadic living. I’d like to encourage all my readers to check it out. That is the kind of depth and clarity that I hope to write one day myself.

      1. Casey says:

        Cheers 🙂

        Glad you found it interesting! I’ve bone to pick with the author though, near the end he says “The romanticism aside, true permanent nomadism is not really an option today.” His argument is essentially, as he gets older, he will demand more conveniences (“hot showers”, “warm beds”, etc). I think nomadism requires a certain amount of asceticism (though not to an extreme).

        Who can say how our preferences will change as we age. Certainly there’s no fault in changing, as long as we always act according to our principles.

        Have you ran across Isabelle Eberhardt yet? She has some great short articles I think you’d love.

        I’ve collected three of her pieces here:

        1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

          Yeah, that stuck out to me as well. I’ve never agreed with people who use their age as an excuse for not being able to do stuff, but that may be my naive point of view of a healthy 31 year old. Perhaps when I get old and frail, I’d have a change of heart.

          Anyway, I think the author was mainly setting the scene for his final point, which was that he wished that the world was better organized to serve the need of nomads, like shower cubicles in public toilets etc. That I point I agree with, although I realize it is a dream unlikely to come true.

          Will check out Isabelle.

  3. Beatrice M says:

    I like to ask people “What are you interested in?” It totally throws people off, gets people talking about more than just work and they also have to think about it. Sometimes they are lucky enough to have their work and their interests align, but not usually.

  4. DM says:

    I’m also not a fan of defining people by their work. You might get some clues to what they’re like as a person but there are more direct and fun questions to accomplish that!

    My first question depends a lot on the context in which I meet a person.

  5. Craig Brown says:

    Oh, I love this post!
    I am a flight attendant with a Master’s Degree in Atmospheric Science. For some reason, having a scientific education seems more “legitimate” than my than livelihood does. People often ask pointed questions about why I’m not “using” my degree. For one reason, they seem to have overestimated the importance of income, or worse, prestige, in making someone happy. When I went back to school, I was open about changing careers, but found that most of the lifestyle choices (sitting in a cloistered cubicle doing math and writing computer programs) was not for me. I’m writing this comment from Shanghai for Pete’s sake! Maybe more interestingly, and I wish people could see this, I AM using my degree in atmospheric science! If you could read my mind you’d see this; I’m always cogitating about how the world works, it’s beautiful, and I’m grateful that I have the scientific vocabulary to do this. When I was nine, I had a weather station on the roof of my house, and I wasn’t earning any money from that. How excellent it would be if more passengers asked what I like to do when I’m not on the airplane.
    In the case of nomadism, I see the question of how you earn money as somewhat understandable. You represent someone who has embarked on an radical experiment in freedom, something most geo-static or cerebro-static people would like more of. It is people like you who are blazing the trail and creating tools (like telecommuting) for others’ to think more imaginatively about their choices and what they really value. The irony is that money often follows, eventually, when you do what you love because you have the energy to really make a go of it. I know a woman who wanted to study the mouths of wasps; oh, you can sense her enthusiasm when she talks about it!! Her parents might have objected at the viability of her educational choice, but she now has a (respectable!) job as head of a natural history museum in New York.

  6. Jon says:

    I always try to downplay what I do for work by saying its a means to an end and not important. The boss doesn’t tend to like that line when I use it at business functions.

  7. When your work is a big part of who you are, the question “What do you do” may become less offensive to you, Gustav. To the question, “What do you do?” you might have replied, “I write one of the finest travel blogs on the internet, offering insight and inspiration about an out-of-the-box lifestyle that is more fulfilling than the one I found in a bank cubicle.”

    1. Craig Brown says:

      OMG Melissa! I wish I had written your answer. Gustav should memorize that verbatim! It will be both true and thought provoking (yet not offensive) to the person who asked.

      1. Yup. And I want YOU as a sponsor if Gustav ever disappoints.

  8. Harsh says:

    While I agree that we shouldn’t judge each other based on our jobs, perhaps the point of asking “But how do you make money doing that?” might be to get information from you as to how it can be done, if it’s possible and sustainable, perhaps that could set them off on their own journey.

    I’d definitely ask you the same question, cause I would want to know, how it’s done, then I’d know if I could do that as well or not.

    Does that make sense?

    1. Gustav, the Modern Nomad says:

      Perhaps I’m overly prickly. 🙂 Could be. If they really are interested in the financial aspect of nomadic living, I’d be very happy to answer any and all questions they may have.

      Still, I get the impression that their question (how do you make a money doing that?) is a clarification that that was what they really meant with their first question (what do you do?) and that my first answer (I’m a nomad) wasn’t a good enough answer.

      But again, perhaps I’m being harsh and overly sensitive. Still, gave me an excuse to write a blog post with Superman as the featured image, so it’s all good. 🙂

  9. Phil Stevens says:

    HaHa! the comic strip hero, I like your use of the analogy, so poignant, nice one Gustav.
    I’m guessing that you have been confronted with this issue on numerous occasions since you took up the nomadic lifestyle judging by your pithy comments in this post. I agree with you, no wonder it’s starting to piss you off. There are however other reasons for this ‘much overly used way of getting to know somebody’ question. As Jen Proctor pointed out, it may just be down to nervousness and/or of not knowing what to say by way of introduction. In this context it can be an ice-breaker and used as an opening line to further broaden the scope of the conversation. Interacting with others for the first time in new situations can be quite daunting for some people and doesn’t always come easy to them, so we should always be mindful of that and be prepared to help make them feel more at ease. Discussing a person’s vocation is not in itself a bad thing if the enquiry is sincere and there is a genuine interest from the enquirer.
    But the point you raised Gustav is about people assessing another person’s worth or their station in life based upon their job status and how much money they make. (I think it’s important to recognise that distinction). Unfortunately there are a lot of people whose mindset works this way, whether that be through conditioning or otherwise, particularly in the western world, as you stated – ‘our culture at some time made it the default question’- this is at best, shallow and at worst, arrogant and dehumanising, so I empathise with your feelings on this.
    But hey, Gustav, we all know that your mettle and tenacity will provide you with the impetus to rise above all that, cause you (and we) know different. So fuck em – is that appropriate on here? well I’ve said it now anyway.
    Happy Travels Gustav. Sorry, I meant Eudaemonic! Travels

    1. Since writing this article, I’ve caught myself saying, “So what do you do?” as an opening line. It’s like a reflex upon meeting someone. Or a bad habit perhaps. So I’ve mindfully tried to replace it with, “What do you enjoy?”

      My point is that yeah, I think you are right. The bad ol’ question is a useful crutch when you nervously try to think of something to say. (But we can do better if we try!)

  10. Phil Stevens says:

    In a word, No. Well not entirely. I suppose elements of my essential nature and personality are necessary and utilised in the process of my working in Community Mental Health Nursing with young LGBT people, things like interpersonal skills, intuitiveness, sensitivity, empathy and an altruistic approach with a desire for a positive outcome. So from that perspective the answer would be yes, in part, because they are elements of my intrinsic nature but by no means all of who I am. Umm, Gustav that’s now got me thinking. Well, from my experience in MH Nursing, I have come to realise that positive efficacy and results rely heavily upon a person’s intrinsic qualities, strengths and their ability to understand the human condition in all of it’s myriad forms, of which they then utilise within the therapeutic relationship and not necessarily simply because they are qualified within the profession, at least that applies to this field of work. So for me, my initial response has been turned around a little.
    However, there are other facets of my nature which do not and would not reflect in my work practice. I also have a variety of subject matter interests, hobbies and leisure pursuits that differ widely from each other and of which I have a natural affinity with that appeals to yet other elements of my nature. I am also a unique individual who is living his life alongside other unique individuals and my true self is not a thing with fixed attributes but is ever-renewing and transforming, as you well know for yourself Gustav.
    So, does my work accurately reflect who I am? The answer would be No, because it only reflects elemental parts of who I am, it does not define me as a whole person.

  11. Karl says:

    I couldn’t agree more with you.

    In the city that I live in we play an interestingly more convoluted version of this game. The city is completely dominated by the public service, so the question may as well be “So what department do you work for?” The follow on questions attempt to summarise a person by their departmental employer and what level of acronym they have achieved. (The pay scales have acronyms for distinct levels, also indicating seniority) To say its tiresome is an understatement. To experience it as an outsider is confusing and generally ends in sheer frustration.

    I would love to meet someone in this city that answered the age old question with “nomad” I probably wouldn’t leave them alone for hours talking about it, just because as a response it is so very different to what I am used to!

    A good friend of mine, who got off the public servant bandwagon rather quickly started asking “So what do you do for fun?” and people’s responses are amazing. They are taken back by the question. It means they have to think instead of pitching their oft recited line. On seeing people’s responses to him I adopted his conversation starter and hugely enjoy it.

  12. Nowhere Man says:

    Q: What do you do?
    A: Whatever I want.

  13. zB says:

    As precarious multi-field nomadic freelancer who thrives on less – I experienced similar and can add that things are worse in particular cultures, societies and locations… among leftist, arty, activist, queer circles this is well understood and looked at with sympathy, while in liberal, business, hetero/homo-normative it is very much an issue – sometimes even show-stopper 🙂

    Conversations become interesting as soon as I return with the question: “What are you passionate about in your work?”

Does your work accurately reflect who you are?

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