How to answer "What do you do" when you don't really know?

How to be confident when feeling lost and incompetent?

At a party. At a network event. Or when you run into an acquaintance on the street. Inevitably, the conversation will include something like:

"How is it going", you ask. "Great!", "Couldn't be better", "Crushing it", he says. "And what are you doing now? How is it going?".

Pff. It's bad enough that our social media feeds are filled with people's highlight reels. But, in real life?

The pressure to do something really cool. To be "crushing it" too. Maybe you are. Sometimes it's true. But usually, it's not. I know I'm not.

So, what do you do when everything could be better? When you're doubting whether or not you're doing the right things. When you've just had a string of misses and the end is not yet in sight. When all you want to answer is "I've got no f*cking clue!!!".

But, when everybody presents this perfect image, saying it isn't going well can feel like putting a big fat sign on you "stay clear of this loser!".

Wouldn't it be great to have a way to answer the questions "What do you do?" or "How is it going?" with confidence? Without that tremor of doubt in your voice. Even when you feel like you don't know what you're doing?

Because especially in these moments of doubt, you want to stay in conversation with others.

So, how to be confident in your times where you feel incompetent?

"What he says."

Putting your game face on and simply playing the "it's great"-tape back sure isn't the solution.

Because even though you're saying the words, through looking away, your tone of voice or body language, you'll still communicate a different message. There is a dissonance between the verbal and non-verbal messaging that others pick up on.

That means your attempt to come across as competent will have the effect that the other will sense an insincerity or inauthenticity about you. Being busted overselling yourself is a surefire way to come across as incompetent and untrustworthy.

And, if everyone just says that everything is great, there is no opening to go into a conversation. What a waste of the potential of this meeting!

But perhaps most importantly, it's tiring to pretend like something you're not.

So, even though it is common, this definitely isn't the solution. But, how to get out of this prisoners dilemma?

Full transparency

You could go for the other extreme, by being fully transparent and honest. When answering, you'd simply speak what's really on your mind. You'd say you're going through a rough time, that you're feeling lost or struggling.

This might be uncomfortable but at least it opens up the opportunity for the other to help and that you'll learn something. Thus, the upside of honesty is much higher than the everything-is-perfect-charade.

But, it's tricky. Because, speaking your mind, when what's on your mind is a cloud of your issues, paints a picture that's overly focused on doubt and struggle. Especially when it's a first impression and the person you're talking to doesn't have any context or prior knowledge about you.

So, while it is what's present at the moment, it might not paint the truest picture of who you really are and what you're capable of.

So, how to be honest and still come across as competent as you are? There's an option behind door number 3!


Understanding the uncertainty

In answering these questions, there have been 3 types of uncertainty that I've noticed with myself.

1) Uncertainty of your purpose. Is what I'm doing what I should be doing?

2) Uncertainty about your strategy. Is this really a smart way to accomplish X?

3) Uncertainty about your capability. The imposter syndrome. Who am I to claim that I can do this?

Own what's yours

All three are doubts I have about what I do and how well I'm able to do it. These doubts already existed before I engaged in conversation. It's just that in talking to somebody else, they get triggered and it becomes uncomfortable. Because I have a need to be liked. And most probably, you do too.

We humans are social creatures that have a need to feel we're an important part of our community. That's been helpful with surviving. So, it's natural to want to present a positive image. And to feel stress when you think you might not.

It requires a constant reminder that this doubt is self-created. We need to worry about our own thoughts first and foremost. What they end up thinking, we should leave with them.

If they judge you harshly, that's really their problem. Or, if they overzealously start offering help, it's you who labels that as "wait, they must think I'm incapable".

So, let them form their own reaction. It's with them. Not with you. "You're never as good, nor as bad, as they say you are." Their judgment - whether it's good or bad - is based on limited information and mixed together with their own story. So their judgment is never really about you.

Besides, what we fear could happen is always nowhere near as bad as what actually happens.


Changing the meaning of the insecurity

Luckily, these doubts don't need to be something bad. That's just a label we put on it. And luckily, if we perceive it differently, we can change its meaning.

It's common

For that, the first mindset shift is that being in such a phase of not-knowing is common. Everyone has these phases.

I've gone through numerous periods of way-finding. When I quit my job as a consultant a few years ago. When I quit the team of De Universiteit. Or recently, when I left the staff of Knowmads. All were times where I had to take a moment to redefine what it was that I'm doing. Again, again and again.

And, even when you know what it is you want to do, whether or not you're successful in achieving it always goes in ups and downs. No success is everlasting and everything goes in cycles. This too shall pass and you'll be riding another wave soon.

It's critical and daring

To improve on what you're doing requires you to question your conventions. Questioning them opens up a world of possibilities. If you want to be great at something, you must often try something that might not work.

That means, while it's uncomfortable, it's also critical and daring to take a step back and question what you're doing.

So, this period of time is your personal investment in R&D! Be proud of your research phase!

To hold that uncertainty, you need a calm environment or space. How comfortable we can be in these social interactions influences how long we can maintain staying in the not-knowing. When you converge too soon because of social (or other) pressure, you leave wisdom on the table.

It's an experiment

It's your own choice to label the doubt as negative.

Choose instead to frame it as an experiment and it already feels much lighter.

I remember apprenticing at an Art of Hosting training a few years ago. In the middle of it, I felt all confused. Not knowing what I knew, what was true, what it was I could do. When I shared that with a colleague, he replied: "Dude, it sounds like you're learning!!" (Thanks, Ashkan). I chuckled. Felt dumb and relieved at the same time.

Learning, especially when it's the most valuable, never feels great in the moment. So, what is it that you're learning that you're currently still experiencing as doubt?

Compartmentalise the insecurity

For research, it's necessary to open up to not knowing and become less secure about what's true. To be effective, you need to be confident in what you know and your skill level.

To handle these contrary forces, it's crucial to have clarity on what you're experimenting on.

While everything can be re-evaluated at some point, doing all at the same time is a surefire way to have your momentum come to a grinding halt. Big ships can handle a leak because they can close off the affected compartments from the rest of the ship.

Luckily, even when you feel completely lost, truth is, that's rarely really the case. Usually, it's a more specific area of your life that's under evaluation. You just have the perception it's bigger than that.

When you sense insecurity spreading to questions that were not part of the experiment, press pause. Close those rooms off for the moment. Those were not part of its jurisdiction. Save those questions for later.

Define what you're experimenting on. Make clear boundaries where you can. And sure, the more existential the questions, the harder this becomes.

References of success

Realise that asking questions is the way to become more competent. While you might feel less competent, it's not that you've lost the knowledge or skill.

Feel aimless? You're still as good at your skills as before. Feel like an imposter? Remember your conviction in wanting to be good at it and work on it.

To do this, it helps to keep your references of success close. Keep a record of those moments that you rocked something. The reactions, testimonials or messages you get from people in which they express that what you did was of real value to them. I keep a note named "positivity file" filled with positive reactions in my Evernote for this reason.


How do you answer these questions?

So somebody asks you: "What do you do?" Let's answer that, shall we?

First and foremost: Always start with what effect you have on which group of people. And only then mention what the exact activity is that you perform (ie. why over what).

For example: "I help medium-sized companies present themselves so that potential customers immediately feel what the company is about. To do so, I design their websites."

"A great. How is that going?"

Then, start off with what is going well. And add the part that feels like a struggle as an experiment.

Continuing with this example: "It's going well. I've recently done work for client X and Y. And at the moment, I'm experimenting with A and B, so I can do what I do better! Scheduled maintenance so to say. I've given myself until next March to try this out."

This is honest and truthful. And it sounds like you know what you're doing and are pro-active about improving. More importantly, it opens up the door to a conversation about what you're trying to learn.

Prepare! Think about your answer to these questions in advance. Half the insecurity is a result of coming up with an answer on the spot. It's like you didn't know what you were doing before the question was asked!

Contact! Then, of course, stay in contact with the person you're talking to. Don't stick rigidly to your "script", and also don't get into your head because of the nerves. Breath and stay calmly in contact.

Practice! Practice on people who are positive and encouraging about your path.

And practice by listening to what others are saying and what it is they actually do and experiment with. Replying in a way that frames their answer into this format helps you learn to formulate your answer!


To send you off into the real world, here are some scripts to practice with:

When unsure of your skills in an area: "I help group X gain Y. I've always done that through So-and-so. While that's been going well, I'm currently experimenting if I can expand on that by doing Ya-da-ya.

When unsure about the strategy: "I help group X gain Y. I've always done that through So-and-so. While that's been going well, I'm currently experimenting if I can expand on that by doing Ya-da-ya.

When unsure of your purpose: "For a number of years, I've done So-and-so. But I'm also really passionate about Ya-da-ya for group X. So currently, I'm trying to see if I can combine the two.

Before you go

I hope this helps you. If so, clapping to it or sharing the article really helps others find it too. Both would be much appreciated!

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