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From Dread To Delighted: Rethinking One Painful Small Talk Question

Love it or hate it, small talk is a way of life. Unfortunately, small talk usually starts with one of the most dreaded questions we are ever asked. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little effort, you can rewrite your story in a way that doesn’t make you hate this terrible question.

Learn what this question is and how to reimagine your answer in this week’s Goal Success By Choice.

Amuse Bouche

Before we get to today’s post, I offer you this light “amuse-bouche” to entertain your mind before we get down to business. Like any other amuse-bouche, you may hate my “dad joke,” but it is worth every penny that you paid for it, right?

A new study recently found that humans eat more bananas than monkeys. This makes sense… I can’t remember the last time I ate a monkey.

Hello, I am Coach Tony… Welcome to Operation Melt!

My name is Coach Tony, and I am a coach, author and project manager on a mission. I am working to build a world where no goal ever dies of loneliness.

I almost allowed one of my biggest life goals to die without ever being attempted for forty years. My goal almost died, not of failure but of loneliness. But, I took a risk and leveraged a simple, logical process that helped me wildly exceed my goal. 

I transformed my life, and you can do the same with the help of Operation Melt. 

Operation Melt provides engaging, practical content and hands-on coaching to inspire, motivate and equip project managers and other left-brained high-achievers to pursue and accomplish their biggest goals. 

Got Goals?

Do you have dreams that you are trying to make come true? Do you have a goal that you are trying to crush? Success doesn’t happen by chance.  Success is a series of choices that can make you unstoppable. Goal Success by Choice helps you make these choices to move you closer to your goals.

This blog is my gift to you. I hope that it helps you choose to be successful and bring your goal to life. Are you ready to help build a world where no goal dies of loneliness?

From Dread To Delighted: Rethinking One Painful Small Talk Question

Change your thoughts and you change your world.

Norman Vincent Peale

This week, I attended an event at a local restaurant… a whiskey dinner. The event included drink pairings with creative food and was a great time.

I went to the event alone and sat at a table of five, some I knew and others I didn’t. Having a multi-hour, multi-course meal with people who I didn’t know meant that there would be lots of small talk. Happily, I do not oppose small talk as much as some people, especially when the result is a fun dinner.

While I don’t despise small talk, it usually starts with answering my least favorite question.

“So, what do you do?”

Who Are You?

Beyond being kind of a boring small talk question, “what do you do” has other risks associated with it. It is a potentially dangerous question tied with “how are you doing” for being one of the most dreaded small talk questions.

Ok, in fairness, “dangerous” may be a little hyperbole. But how you answer this question can be positive for your mental health and your goal success, or it can hold you back.

By asking, “what do you do,” the questioner is actually asking you to share a portion of your identity, and he will reciprocate by sharing a portion of his identity. Instead of hearing the innocuous question as asked, imagine being asked a slightly different question.

“So, tell me who you are.”

It’s Tricky… Tricky, Tricky, Tricky

One of my top lessons from the past few years is that identity is a tricky concept.

Sometimes high-achievers live our lives as chameleons. We tend to define our identity based on our achievements, the roles we play in life or external measurements. This can make us feel lost and struggle to rediscover who we are when any of those things change. Investing time in getting to know our authentic selves pays enormous dividends.

Consider what you are saying when you answer the “what do you do” question by mindlessly telling somebody that you are the senior director of nonsense at Acme Labs (which would be a pretty cool job title, right). You are telling the other person that this is your identity. This is who you are, not just what you do.

An answer like this can inadvertently tie your identity as a person to your job. That wasn’t your intent; you weren’t even thinking of it that way, but say this enough times and train your brain to believe it. This can set you up for numerous struggles throughout your life.

Jobs Don’t Last Forever

Job changes happen. Sometimes by choice, but sometimes not.

Take it from me, you can walk into work one random Tuesday morning, and your company can tell you that your job has been eliminated. These decisions are almost entirely out of your control (though you can probably force your company to let you go, but I don’t recommend it).

If your job is your identity and your job suddenly ends, then what. This is one reason people have such emotional reactions to job losses and walk around lost for a little while.

You’re Bigger Than That

As I said above, the “what do you do” question asks you to tell the other person who you are. If you just answer that you are the VP of nonsense at Acme Labs (yep, I just got promoted!), you aren’t telling the whole story. You are downplaying the complexity, magic and specialness of who you are.

Our jobs are just one aspect of our lives. Yes, they are important. Yes, they are where we spend a big chunk of our time. Yes, they are an opportunity to make an impact on the world. But, is your job the only thing you want to be known for in the world?

When somebody asks you to tell them who you are, tell them about the whole you.

Forgettable Story

When you have finished answering the “what do you do” question, the other person will walk away with a story in their mind of who you are. Do I want that person to walk away just thinking I am the manager of nonsense at Acme Labs (yep, that’s a lower title now, don’t ask, long story)?

The story that you let people believe about you is important. 

When somebody only knows your job title, you usually become pretty forgettable. You risk being filed away in their brain as a tool for future needs. Their brain may even classify you as boring.

It is up to you to control this story. You have choices, and you have power here. If you tell your story, it will be hard for the other person to forget you.

Tell Your Story

So, what can you do to improve your “what do you do” answer? You can tell your story!

Before going any further, I have an important reminder for you. Remember that there are no rules about how you have to answer the “what do you do” question. As I have previously written, you are the only person who needs to give yourself permission to change your answer. You are the only person whose permission you need to be different.

Take some time to brainstorm how you would like people to remember you. When somebody says, “tell me who you are,” what are the important points you want them to walk away with? What things do you do every day that you are proud of?

Use the list of items from your brainstorming to create your story. Craft a story that is short, memorable and reflects who you really are. Keep refining this story until you are happy enough for now, though you will keep refining it forever. Then practice telling it, so you are ready.

Finally, the next time somebody says, “so, what do you do,” confidently tell your story and be yourself!

While my story is a constant work in progress, I will happily share it with you. When somebody asks me, “so Tony, what do you do” the answer I am working on is:

I help individuals and businesses achieve their most important goals.

If they are intrigued, confused or want to know more about what this means. I will share some additional details.

  • I do this as a consultant specializing in technology project management.
  • I do this as a leader who builds and develops teams and grows talent.
  • I do this as a coach specializing in goals and goal success.
  • I do this as a writer specializing in goals and personal development at
  • I do this by sharing my journey to conquer obesity and to keep improving as an amateur athlete.

I plan to tailor this to the audience, but that is my story. I am becoming more confident with this story each time I tell it.

Thanks again for reading today’s post, and here’s to achieving your most important goals!

So What

Love it or hate it, small talk is a way of life. Unfortunately, small talk usually starts with one of the most dreaded questions we are ever asked. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little effort, you can rewrite your story in a way that doesn’t make you hate this terrible question.

Need help writing your story? Sounds like you need a coach! Click here to learn more about my Operation Melt coaching services.

Before you go… please consider purchasing one of my books to help you achieve your goals.

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