What Are You Doing?

As a college student, I frequently met the question, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” or, even more generously, “What field do you think you might want to go into?” or, more often in my senior year, “What are your plans?” As a graduate, the Future has dropped off the face of the Present, and the questions have been reduced to the disappointingly broad and immediate, “What are you doing?”

No longer afforded the luxury of plans and the grace of aspirations, the graduate’s future is happening, now. No longer is it a matter of choice and planning, but rather one of presence and stasis. Where are you now, and what are you doing?

The inimitable Lucy.

When I was in college, my father often said to an overwhelmed and over-scheduled me, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Small consolation, mind you, at the time. He’d continue, “Because you know the more you do,” and I’d chime in, “the more you can do.” This incantation I always imagined issuing from the likes of Zig Ziglar, motivational speaker, of such other gems familiar to my young-adulthood as, “Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street,” and the truly stellar, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” If only I’d kept that one in the ol’ back pocket, I might have grinned my way to a four-point-o.

The whole “more you do” business is care of Lucille Ball, as it turns out, which seems to make its message truer. (Incidentally, the same is liable happen in reverse—the ideological bottom fell out of a particular mantra of mine when I discovered it was a Bob Marley quotation. Cue eye-roll.) In any case, the aphorism was offered as encouragement and affirmation, and I found fortitude and a certain sense of overachieving superiority in the idea that doing begets doing, and that motivation may be its own uncaused cause.

Now, as I languish in jobless purgatorio, “the more you do, the more you can do” is perversely mocking, the inverse perhaps also being true—that the less you do, the less you can do. Like water, which fills any vessel, the few things I find to busy my days somehow span every unclaimed second. Two hours to go buy a book, two days to paint a door, two months to write a blog post.

It’s not that anything takes longer to do, but with nowhere much else to be and nothing much else to do, why hurry? Too much time on one’s hands is a pleasanter misfortune than most, to be sure, and frustrates primarily upon reflection. That fifteen waking hours might contain little more than coffee, television, and a trip to the bookstore (possibly to buy a book, possibly to do nothing more than thumb through the latest O Magazine) lends one a discomfiting feeling of atrophy.


Staring at the familiar steel-blue-and-white window of Microsoft Word, my head pounding the-less-you-do, the-less-you-do, I exhort myself with all the Uma-Thurman-in-Kill-Bill concentration I can muster, Update. Your blog.

And again. Update. Your blog.

My fingers flail insouciantly, jumping reflexively to SHIFT+3, hashtagging my most earnest attempts at linear thought. My eyes drift from my hunt-and-peck typing for a split second and “omen” has appeared as “omg”—this is the muscle memory of a generation.

Still I’m bound to press on, flailing and hunt-and-pecking, because far more dreadful than the question, “What are you doing?” is the highly interview-appropriate, “What have you been doing [for the past five f—ing months]?” Searching. Thinking. Reading. Writing. Waiting.

Though I’m confident my interview reflexes and practiced occupational upsell (see also, The Other 90.9%) could build me a more compelling verbal case, the completion of something tangible and creative helps to stem the numbing tingle of my unused brain. And as far as doing something goes, that’s not bad.

  1. Meg C said:

    Wow, well said. You’ve managed to put a finger on a feeling that gnaws at a lot of us 20-somethings these days. Let’s just have faith that there’s still time for new aspirations, new plans and one day some sufficient answer to the awesome question of “what do you do?” By the way I love your blog, John, and I don’t think I’ve ever expressed that to you, so there ya go!

    -Your old Brooklyn neighbor of a month, Meg

    • Thank you Meg!! That means so much. I’ve been thinking about all this the past few months, and I still think you said it best—it’s Freshman Year of Life.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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