Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What do you do?

"What do you do?"

A couple of years ago I was in a play based on the writings of Robert Fulghum--All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten--which featured this question in one scene. The focus of the scene, and of the Fulghum essay on which it was based, was to highlight how uninformative the usual answers to this question really are.

I think that in my own case, when people ask, “What do you do?”, telling them my profession is probably more informative than it would be in many other cases. I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff, and writing about and discussing those thoughts. But still, to say that philosophy is what I do seems to put in shadow other things that define me at least as much.  
Over the weekend I was at a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker, Steven James, encouraged everyone with a passion for writing to say “I’m a writer” even if that’s not what they’re paid to do. After all, Van Gogh was barely paid for his painting but surely was a painter. My wife is training for her first full Ironman triathlon this summer. She isn’t getting paid for it, but she devotes many hours a week to intense workouts, often getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get her training in before work. She loves it. It gives her a sense of purpose. Is she a triathlete?

At the writers’ conference this weekend I thought to myself: “Philosophers are my colleagues, but writers are my tribe.” So, should I say that writing is what I do? Or playing the violin? That used to be what I said, back in high school. Maybe now it should be acting, given how much theatre I've done in the past year.

I think those kinds of answers are really short-hand answers, gestures that we make because we don’t have the time to tell a story. But here, on a blog, I do have time to tell a story. And for some reason, the story that comes to mind right now, when I think about that “What do you do?” question, is about one of my less-than-stellar parenting moments—a time last summer when I tried to build a tool box with my eight-year-old son.

My son’s a perfectionist, and I’m an academic with insecurities in the face of such things as screwdrivers and measuring tape. But he was so excited about getting started on putting together that tool box—and I thought to myself, “What can go wrong? It’s a kit.”

“Okay,” I said as we laid out the pieces of wood on the table and I squinted at the instructions. “We need three screws.”

He fished in the little plastic bag that came with the kit, and came up with three innocuous-looking bronze screws.

It didn’t take long for things to go to hell. We’d barely started working on the second screw—having abandoned efforts to get the first one into the hole—when he flung down the screw driver, ran into his room, and barricaded the door.

In the span of five minutes, a would-be bonding experience with an eager son was transformed into an hour-long sobbing meltdown. What happened?

The details are a bit hazy. I remember trying to instruct him on how to screw in a screw. I recall seeing the delight wither on his face when, concerned that the screw was going in crooked, I snatched up the block of wood to look more closely at it. I can recall his exasperated hiss: “Let me do it!”

And then came that moment when I knew he’d given up. He started spinning the screwdriver round and round without pressing down. “See? Nothing’s happening.”

“That’s because you’re not pressing down on the screwdriver as you turn.”

“I am pressing down!”

Here, let me—”


And so he fled into his room, and I found myself slumped on the floor in the hallway outside, trying to talk to him through the barricaded door. I was baffled. Somehow I’d turned father-son bonding into (or so it seemed) the worst day of my eldest child’s life.

“Can you explain why you’re so upset?” I asked from my spot on the hardwood floor. The only response I got was the sound of his sobs and one more piece of furniture being pushed in front of the door.

Finally I gave up and did what other 21st Century fathers would do. I pulled out my Android Smart Phone and texted my wife.

Half an hour later she came home, snatched up a book about perfectionism, and asked my son to look at a page and pick out the thoughts that were going through his head. I watched as he pointed to phrases that were printed in various sizes on the page. His finger landed on “I can’t do anything right” before moving on to “If I goof up, something’s wrong with me.”

“Now are any of those thoughts true?” my wife asked.


And he nodded. And in no time at all he was back to his usual happy self. I blinked at my wife, filled with a kind of awe.

But this isn’t about my wife. It’s about who I am. I’m the guy who tried to build a toolbox with my son, even though I’m essentially incompetent with hand tools, even though I haven’t yet achieved the psychological finesse to perfectly maneuver the pitfalls of such a task with a perfectionist child. Because of the eagerness in my son’s eyes.  

And I’m also the guy who followed after my sobbing child, my heart aching, and sat there on the floor in the hall outside my son’s room, baffled and wanting nothing more than to rewind the morning and start again—start again and do it right this time, and put my arm on my son’s shoulder, and look at the finished tool box and say something like, “We did it!”

I’m the guy who was slumped there full of feelings, most of them about my son and my family and my desire to be a good father, about the enormity and importance of the job.

But, of course, what I tell people is that I’m a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics and the philosophy of religion. Go figure.


  1. Wonderful post, Eric. We do paint ourselves with broad and attractive strokes. I tell myself that's just to get through the day, but I wonder. I bet the story you tell here resonates with almost every parent (it does with me), whereas "philosopher" (or "physics prof" in my case) separates us a bit. Maybe the point is to distinguish ourselves, to put ourselves in a distinct category. I'm guessing that's what I want from others when we're the one asking the question. I'm just wondering how one could answer the question in a way that unites while not being silly ("I breathe air") or too long-winded (telling a story).

  2. Bernard BeckettMay 8, 2012 at 7:45 PM

    Great post Eric.

    I spend the greatest portion of my waking hours being the father of my two year old twins, currently draw salary as a writer in residence at a university, and yet when asked, always describe myself as a school teacher. Not sure what that's all about.

    The twin question 'what do I do?' is the crucial one for me, especially when the demands of different roles clash. It's the 'no I can't fly to that conference because I'd rather be with my boys/wife' moments that most sharpen my sense of self.

    To that end, overtly, indeed proudly, defining ourselves in terms of our key relationships may play an important role in granting others permission to do the same. It's great to see you do that in a public forum.