Not What, But How

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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He asked a perfectly reasonable question, but I found myself inexplicably at a loss for words.

Sitting in the coffee shop, minding my own business, the barista on break started up a conversation.

"So, what you reading there?"

We discussed my novel and the magazine lying on my table for a few minutes. I asked him how he liked his job at the coffee shop. He turned out to be a part-time student, so we talked about his yet-to-be-determined major as well. Then it got ugly.

"So, what do you do?"

I panicked. It was a perfectly reasonable question. I was actually surprised he hadn't asked it earlier. But, try as I might, I couldn't find the words to answer.

My head was spinning with the variety of responses I could give. Which of my several part-time jobs should I explain first? How might he judge me by this job or that? Should I mention the fact I was searching for a new position? Or, should I first say that I'm a part-time student? It was a simple question—"What do you do?"—but I couldn't even begin to answer it directly. I think I babbled a few nonsensical words for a few seconds, then just changed the subject.

Reflecting on my coffee shop incident got me thinking that maybe the common question itself is actually less innocuous than it seems. "What do you do?" is surely asked thousands of times daily, and it's helpful to know a person's occupation. But an alternative simple question would often be more telling, more helpful.

What if we stopped asking "What do you do?" And instead we asked, "So, how do you do your job?" Not "what" but "how."

Asking how one does a job actually can reveal even more information than the alternative. Two people in the same job could answer the "What do you do?" question the same way, but have wildly different answers to the "how" question.

For Christians, the how question is really the more important question. Sure, not every job that exists today is ethically sound, but most of us can use our God-given gifts for many different occupations. Certainly, our gifts will fit some jobs better than others, but no matter what we happen to do, one thing about our job stays the same: we work for the glory of God. Work, any work, has a lot to do with the how.

So as we go prepare for our jobs, no matter the answer to the what do you do question, we can keep these questions in mind to focus our work on God:

How can I be the peace of God today at my workplace?
How can I share God's love in my actions?
How might I be Christ's hands and feet today in my job?
How might my actions today bring glory to God?

If that barista asked me today, "What do you do?" I still might fumble a direct answer. But, then again, I might reframe the question and say, "You know, I think it's not really what I do, but it's the way I do it." And then go on to explain, whatever part-time job I wish to claim that day, how I seek to work with love, generosity, and praise.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Think of a time you experienced someone working with generosity, love, and praise. What made you notice this person? How did you feel when you saw this person working?
  • How would you answer the question, "How do you do your job?"
  • What means more to you: how you work or what you do?
  • What would you like to change about your answer to the question, "How do you do your job?"
  • For more, see "Why Work Is Holy," "Power of Perspective," and "Wake up to the Sacred."

Photograph, "Gears" by William Warby, used under a Creative Commons license.