The Hardest Question is Back
Kathy rushes to the door of the hotel room ahead of me, turns to face me, and says, “OK. Before we leave this room, tell me one more time. What is it you do?”
We had just checked into the Ritz Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We went to our room, unpacked our bags, and freshened up. The Fellowship of Companies for Christ conference was to begin in just a few minutes. Like many business conferences, it started with a meet-and-greet cocktail party.
And what are the two questions you get when you attend a cocktail party?
1. What is your name?
2. What do you do?
Both of these questions are identity questions. I am identified by my name in society. I am categorized by my occupation. And in a business conference, my occupation identity is either interesting to the person I am talking to or it isn’t.
Kathy asked me this question because she was confused. She knew what I did before I discovered this new thing I was doing. It was simple. I was the president of an IT services company. But now she felt stupid because she couldn’t answer the simple question, "What does your husband do?"
She knew what I was doing but didn’t know what to call it. And she didn’t know what to call it because I didn’t know what to call it. The term “angel investor” was not identified in the early 1990s as an occupation. It was an investing hobby or something one would do to help the community.
So I made it simple for her, “Tell anyone who asks that I am a venture capitalist. And if they ask what that is, tell them I invest money in early-stage technology businesses.”
She was good with that. She turned toward the door, opened it, and off we went to the conference cocktail party.
And now it is the early 1990s all over again at the Paparelli household.
A couple of weeks ago I decided I am no longer a professional angel investor, though I still invest to support the community. I continue to have equity investments in several companies, but I am not doing any new angel investing. This means I cannot answer the "What do you do?" question with, "I'm a professional angel investor." I gave this answer for the last 28 years. But alas, no more.
So how do I answer the occupation question?
I answer it the way I used to answer when I stopped being a president. I tell people what I used to do for a living. And people are generally very kind to me. After all, they could say, "I didn't ask you what you used to do. I am asking you what you are doing now."
It is hard to not know how to answer that question. No concise answer means not fitting in. More importantly, it means not making a meaningful connection with new people I meet. They just don't know what to do with me. We all must fit an occupational category. It is just the way society works.
I am a person with lots of different business and investment experiences. And now I am producing lots of great content in blogs and interviews, all focused on helping entrepreneurs. But people don't want a paragraph when asking the question. They want a one-word answer.
I'm a doctor.
I'm a lawyer.
I'm a programmer.
I'm a tech executive.
I'm a builder.
I'm a business owner.
You get it.
At my age, the easiest answer is, "I'm retired." And as my former business partner discovered when he retired, that answer makes you the least interesting person at the business meeting.
I would give that answer if it were true, but I am not retired. I am engaged.
Advising entrepreneurs who are my clients
Coaching executives in transition
Writing blogs (just like this one)
Interviewing entrepreneurs, knowing their stories will help other entrepreneurs
Posting the blogs and interviews on paparelli.com and YouTube
Praying daily on TikTok for entrepreneurs
Acting as chairman of the Atlanta High Tech Prayer Breakfast
Speaking to business groups when invited
Leading an angel group at the ATDC at Georgia Tech
Mentoring at Atlanta Tech Village
Leading a business person Bible study
Helping my still active investments where needed
So if I'm not retired, then what am I? How do I answer the "What do you do?" question with a one-word answer?
It is important to know the one-word answer not only for others but also, more importantly, for myself.
The one-word answer defines mission. If I have a mission, then I have goals. If I have goals, I have a strategy. And if I have a strategy, then I know what I should be doing each day and in the right priority.
No one-word answer means all my activities are good activities. There are no criteria to judge whether one activity is more important than another. It is simply the people in my life and due dates that set the priorities for the activities.
The week starts with a to-do list of what must be done. At the end of the week, I judge my productivity based on how many boxes I checked. And this is not a good way for me to live. I am guessing this is what it feels like to be retired. I know from experience this is what it feels like when I’m in transition.
Career transitions are challenging. I’ve done this twice, and now I’m on my third career transition. I need to know the one-word answer. Kathy needs to know the one-word answer. Until then, we’d better not go to a cocktail party!