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When You’re Asked “What Do You Want to Do” They’re Not Really Asking “What Do You Want to Do.” I Know, Language Is Weird.

Have you ever answered a job-related question, and realize too late that it didn't land? You might have just answered the wrong question.

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Earlier this week, I was talking to one of my dear friends who is looking for a job. She told me how she’d recently answered the question, “What do you want to do?”

My response was not pretty. “Oh, good god!” I said, “PLEASE stop answering the question that way. Your answer is NOT what they need to hear.”

(In case you’re worried, she still thinks I’m amazing. We’ve planned for more shenanigans soon.)

THE CRAZY TRUTH IS, WHEN PEOPLE ASK, “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?” THEY’RE NOT REALLY ASKING, “WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?”

And, if we give our socialized right answer—as my friend did by saying, “It depends”—the question-asker will almost always walk away dissatisfied. 

I know this sounds like crazy making.You’re probably wondering what the heck they are asking for then.

Never fear my awesome friends. As always, I have answers. 

So let’s assume someone asked, “What do you want to do?” because you shared that you’re looking for a new opportunity, the way my friend did. 

What do they really want to know? Your value to an organization and some semblance of category – be it level, geography and/or industry. 

Here’s how my friend could answer that question:

  • I’m looking for an opportunity at the intersection of social impact and community engagement in the LA area.
  • An opportunity for someone who understands how to navigate giving at the grassroots and major donor levels.
  • The organization would be looking for someone who wants to take the reins and breathe new life into the foundation they’ve built—with a sense of fun.

This description implies executive, non-profit (maybe), LA, not afraid to ask for money, big donor management, and a bit of her personality, all in one go. 

Yes, it’s a lot. You might be thinking this is too much information.

But unless this person is just making polite conversation with you, they want to help you. When they’re out and about and hear, “We’re looking for someone who can do X,” or “We have this problem we’re trying to solve,” they’ll chime in, “I know just the person!” 

IF YOU ANSWER, “IT DEPENDS,” NO ONE IS GOING TO CHIME IN LIKE THAT.

And even if the listener only remembers 10% of your story, this person will walk away with enough of an impression to say, “I remember a little of how amazing she is, but there’s a whole lot more.”

Now let’s look at another scenario. This time it’s your boss asking, “What do you want to do?”

This just happened to a client of mine who got promoted to a leadership role.

When I heard this, I hooted with joy. Why? Because that meant her boss was really asking, “You’re a trusted and strategic member of the team. Can you figure out what the best thing to do is, and then come back and tell me?”

You might think that what your boss wants from you is to make up your job description. Nope, that’s not it.

My client got asked, “What do you want to do?” because her boss is ready for her to shift from leading projects, to decide if the company will DO the project. To shift from being the person who decides about fixing screw-ups, to deciding, “Was the $5M investment the company just made in technology and talent was right or wrong?”

So the right answer in this context is, “This is the strategic direction I’m taking this team, and here’s why.” (Oh, and by the way, you’re going to be held accountable for your decision. But no need to panic. You’ve got this.)

So those are my thoughts about, “What do you want to do?”

There are tons more not-the-real-question-questions just like this.

What do you do?
Walk me through your resume? / Tell me about yourself.
Where do you want to be in five years?
Why do you want this job?

And if you’d like, I can keep going with translating these, too.

Which ones trip you up the most? Or do you have other questions you’d like me to tackle? Tell me what you want to know, and I’ll happily give you answers.

Meanwhile, as always, I dare you to practice what you’ve learned by trying it out on at least one person.

IT MIGHT BE AWKWARD. BUT YOU CAN DO IT.

PS. Job seekers, you’re not alone. I hate to break the news to managers, but 85% of employees say they’re open to new opportunities. 

PPS. Don’t forget: every decision made about you is made in a room you’re not in. People need to know why you’re uniquely awesome if you’re going to be in the consideration set. So, teach someone how to talk about you every chance you get.

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