The Wrong Question

My friend Adele and I were hiking when she asked me a question I’ve been turning in my mind for the better part of four years. We were ruminating about the future — plans and passion and dreams — and I was rambling on about all the things I wanted to be when I grew up. I was secretly hoping she’d be impressed with my world-altering aspirations when she popped the question that made me realize she wasn’t: “Why don’t you tell me about who you want to be?”

I probably should have thought it profound, but I was too puzzled to feel its weight. Maybe she hadn’t been listening. I mean, taking the time to think about who I wanted to be seemed a little obtrusive, you know, to the lofty goals.  Maybe I’d make some space for it after I checked off a few boxes; maybe slip it in my back pocket and whip it out during my first midlife crisis.

Months later, I flew through the doors of Panera with a writing deadline pressing hard on my day. I had exactly one hour to click SEND and dash to school before my kids sat alone and dejected in the principal’s office. Panera was packed, so I plopped down in one of two open seats, a soft, camel-colored chair tucked in the corner. My chair’s twin — the only other free seat in the house — sat close and perpendicular to mine.  I had just locked in on my revisions when a young businessman sat in the empty chair, flipped open his laptop and, probably because our knees were almost touching, felt the freedom to chat like I was his new BFF.

“Man, can’t stand not being connected. Hard to imagine how we used to get by without all this technology.”

Normally, even if I didn’t feel like engaging the conversation I’d feign politeness, but with my minutes ticking away I was uncharacteristically abrupt. “Mmhmm,” I muttered, barely looking up.  I stared back at my screen, assuming I’d made my point.  Apparently I hadn’t.  After a few minutes of small talk, he asked the question to which all small talk eventually leads,  “So, what do you do?”

I rolled my eyes with the grace of a teenager and pushed out a loud, heavy sigh. (Note: intentionally exaggerated to illustrate my point). Only this time it wasn’t just because he was stealing my precious time. I suppose if I had an easy answer to his question, it wouldn’t have bothered me so much: Teacher. Lawyer. Realtor. Professional Athlete. Swimsuit Model. A clear lens through which he could have typecast my role and gone about his all-the-time-in-the-world kind-of day. But the answer was complicated; no neat little one-word caption that would tell him what he wanted to know. In fact, I resented that he’d ask me to supply him with one.

Okay, I know. In the poor guy’s defense, I looked like a normal person and nine times out of ten he’d have been on safe ground.  But for the first time, the significance of Adele’s question permeated my paradigm and I wanted to tell him that he was asking me the wrong question. I wanted to put a death grip on his knee and growl from somewhere deep in my gut and tell him that Life was asking me the wrong question. And that trying to answer it with the one right response had left me completely exasperated.

So, a few more soul-searching experiences later, I finally decided to give in (or maybe give up) and begin asking myself the question Adele asked me on our hike.

I’ve been surprised to learn that in discovering the answers to the who-do-I-want-to-be kinds of questions, the less frustrated I am with the what-do-I-want-to-do kinds of questions. Not because I’m any less inclined to pursue my world-altering goals (in fact, I’m finding the opposite to be true), but because I’ve realized that when I invest my time into Question #1, Question #2 becomes a heck of a lot easier to answer. And by easier I mean arduous and painful, but certainly one whose vision is more clear.

It’s a vision whose theme I think I’ll explore quite a bit on this blog. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Adele might be proud.

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12 thoughts on “The Wrong Question

  1. Pingback: The Wrong Question « Doug Solter.com

    • Doug, you are my new favorite cousin. Of course! Thanks for even thinking of it. Btw, still reading your MS. Was plugging away until I started work and now I’ve been scrambling, but don’t worry, still making notes and turning the pages. You are doing a great job!

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  2. No, actually not a reminder – a new thought to mull over, since I know I get too caught up in what I “do” vs. who I am “becoming”…Thanks for writing this!

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  3. Great post, Suanne. Love that you’re working through this. Can’t wait to hear the answers.

    @Nicole, sounds like someone hasn’t read “Mama’s Got a Fake I.D.” A whole stinkin’ chapter is devoted to how to answer that question! : )

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  4. If there is any question I dislike more than “What do you do?”, I’m not aware of it. I also once spoke with Adele about it and she must have been feeling particulary fiesty that day because she said “you could respond with ‘what do I do about what?'” I laughed but I have to admit I’ve used it once or twice. 🙂

    Suanne, thanks for sharing this and for the reminder that pondering who we want to be can produce much more fruit than what we want to do.

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  5. Really appreciate this post, Suanne. I always struggle with the “What do you do?” question. The reality is that we are all so much more than what we “do” on a daily basis. But I can’t wait to read more in the future about how you are working out the answers to the “who do I want to be?” question!

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