"Hi. What do you do?"

by Nicola Burnell

We've all been there. From holiday parties to networking events, this question is inescapable.

You have just seconds to respond.

The pressure is on to sound interesting, fabulous even. Whatever you say, it had better be good. Your answer will either open the door to more probing inquiries or slam it shut. WHAM! And the guest is off to the next person…

So how do you respond to this loaded question?

I'll be honest with you; I've been known to lie. It all depends on the situation. If it's a professional event I'll either tell you that I'm a publisher, a writer, an editor, a teacher or a healer. All of which are true. But if I'm at a more social event, and I can smell judgment hanging in the air, I may tell you that I'm an astronaut or a firewalk instructor, the latter of which is also true.

Like many working women on Cape Cod, I don many hats. The reality of what I DO cannot be tucked into a neat little box of one title or another. What I DO is messy, sometimes heartbreaking and very often deliciously humorous.

My life is my work, my work is not my life. For this, I am truly grateful.

When it comes to defining their "work" I have found that women often get slammed by an avalanche of complicated emotions. They want to tell you they are successful: they got the promotion – they secured the client – they launched the new store. Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

The guest at the party keeps listening.

But what if you don't have an official career title? What if you told the truth about your work? Not your "job," your "work." It's that thing you do from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you collapse into bed at night.

It's not the job title that defines you – it's the hours spent caring for your sick husband, your aging mother, or your colicky newborn. This, my friends, is WORK!

It may not have a sexy title. Say, "Daily bottom wiper," and that guest is off to find a new mark.

No woman works in a vacuum. We all work within a web of cultural and personal dynamics that can often feel like a straightjacket.

The real work of women demands skills that reach into the highest realms of ingenuity. We couldn't possibly get a college degree in every area of the work we do. I'm not a plumber, but I learned how to solder a burst copper pipe on Home Depot's DIY video page.

We do what we have to do. We push ourselves beyond our perceived limitations. We delve into our emotional tool bag to find compassion, patience and gratitude at times when we just want to walk away. We go the extra hundred miles because we are resourceful and determined.

This is why women succeed, not just in careers, but in their daily lives too. But how often do we pause to look back at how far we've come? We just keep working.

A teenager gets arrested for drugs – the mother swallows her grief and looks for new ways to support her child. This might mean watching them fall, but even as she collapses into her own despair she continues to show up, every day, to her "job."

A wife gets a diagnosis that might end her marriage – she finds strength in the women who have already lived this story. She reaches out and continues to show up, every day, to her "job."

These are the stories that party guests don't really want to hear. They require genuine communication and an intimacy that can bring strangers together. They ask the listener to care about the person they are talking to.

These are the stories that make up my work. I read them in the pages of this magazine, I listen to them in my classes, and I edit the manuscripts that give these stories a permanent home.

My "work" does not feel work to me at all. As women talk to me about their lives, their challenges and their dreams, they inspire me to show up, every day, to my "job."

If you ask me "Hi. What do you do?" I just might tell you.

Like all women who "work", I leap in and out of many roles, contorting my mind and emotions to fit the task at hand. College essay due by midnight? No problem - just plop on that editor's hat. Cat throws up all over the house minutes before a client arrives? Get the Bissel out – but work fast! And don't forget to clean the puke off your fingers before offering them a cup of tea…

Forget to swap your slippers for shoes before rushing into the grocery store? Well, who hasn't done THAT?!

So the next time someone says "Hi. What do you do?" you have two choices: either toss the ball back into their court by asking them what THEY do, or recite your usual response and watch them pigeonhole you.

Here's another possibility – why not rephrase the question entirely by asking "Hi, how was your day?"

Just be prepared for the answer!

Creativity, Writing & Personal Growth Classes

Feeling stuck?
Does your creativity need a jump-start?

Nicola Burnell is now teaching these classes:

The Artist's Way

Every Life is a Story Waiting to be Told

Stop Talking About Writing a Book
~ Just Write It!

What's Your Story?
If you don't like it then let's re-write it!

Email Nicola@CapeWomenOnline.com
Or Click here for details

Nicola Burnell is the Publisher and a contributing writer for this magazine. In addition to writing her own novel, she teaches novel writing classes through Nauset Community Education.

As part of the Cape Women in the Community initiative, she also teaches a series of creativity development classes, including the Artist's Way, at Danton Studio, the Hyannis Arts Center at Guyer Barn and the Masjah Center. For details about these classes visit this CWO Classes link.

Nicola has been a Reiki practitioner and Personal Empowerment workshop leader for over fifteen years. She is a member in Letters of the National League of American Pen Women and is Historian of the Cape Cod Branch.

Nicola is now offering a variety of FUN Events and Writing Retreats on Cape Cod. She will be offering Writing and Artist Retreats at Casa della Quercia, an historic villa in Northern Tuscany, in the Spring of 2013.

For details about any of her Classes or Events email Nicola@CapeWomenOnline.com.

You can also follow her blog "Nic's Novel Project" and on Twitter.

Nicola lives in Harwich with her two sons and several pets.