03/09/2013 10:48 am ET Updated May 09, 2013

Don't Ask Me What I Do, Ask Me Who I Am

I carry a few different business cards in my purse. Because I never know what conversation I will have with a stranger at any given time.

A month ago I fetched cream for my coffee at a café in South Bend, Ind. Naturally, my family didn't know a soul in the joint. However, by the time I returned to my table, I knew some incredibly intimate (not to mention interesting) details about the daughter of the man next to me who was reaching for a napkin: His daughter is bipolar, she was anorexic as a teenage ballerina, and she's on some of the same meds as I am.

I ended up giving him a business card with everything but my email scratched out.

I didn't want to have the conversation of what I do for living.

It doesn't have anything to do with who I am.

And that's why I get so annoyed that we have to start all of our conversations with that question.

As a country, we are obsessed with our jobs: an understatement. Our professions are central to our self-identities and our industries define who we are. We don't even know how to vacation. It doesn't matter that United States workers receive far fewer vacation days than other workers in other industrialized countries because American employees fail to take the time off that they have accrued. Our European friends shake their heads at that one.

I remember how refreshing it was to ask a French couple "what they did" (I plead guilty) at a swim meet for our kids.

"We are skiers," they said emphatically. No equivocation. No insecurity. No approval-seeking.

That was who they are and were proud of being, and told me a hell of a lot more about them than had they rattled off their resumes starting with their last places of employment: "I'm an accountant with Ernst & Young." "I'm a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton." "I'm a program manager with Northrup Grumman." Snore. Snore like Gramma.

My conundrum is that I wear a few different hats at the present moment, so I, in fact, don't really know what I am. I know what my ministry or innate purpose in life is -- to provide hope to those who struggle intensely with depression and other mood disorders -- but it's not related to what I do for a living as a government contractor. One pays with blessings, the other is generous with benefits. And unfortunately, in this country, most benefits are tied to your job, so while following your dream is all good and noble, you might get screwed if your appendix bursts like mine did a year ago and you need some quick medical attention. Passion, at times, has to take a backseat to medical care and other life necessities.

Upon meeting someone new, part of me hopes I will never hear the dreaded four words (what-do-you-do) because then I wouldn't have to assess how I am going to respond -- with my pragmatic communications-consultant role, or with the idealistic wanting-to-save-the-world profile.

At the least, it would be nice to delay the work conversation toward the second half of the conversation, after the other top three questions: Where are you from? Why are you here (conference, cocktail hour, reunion, fundraiser, Chuck E Cheese)? How many kids do you have and what are their ages and when were they potty-trained?

For this reason, I've always loved writer Oriah Mountain Dreamer's poem "The Invitation," which went viral 15 years ago and was later published in a book. May we all share this vision one day.

"It doesn't interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart's longing...

It doesn't interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments."

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