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The question I dread: What are you working on?

by: Samarth Bansal | 21 September, 2023

Among the many questions I don’t like answering, the one that bothers me the most is: “What are you working on these days?”

This question bothers me because it’s usually well-intentioned. It’s just someone expressing curiosity about my work. So I can’t blame the person asking me the question for the uneasy feeling their words give me—and as we all know, it’s far easier to get through life when you have someone to blame.

Why do I find the question troubling? Because telling the truth feels awkward, and lying isn’t my style. But I will try to tell the truth here. 

One: I have a part-time gig—which I really love—that makes me just enough money to pay what feels like exorbitant rent, buy costly shampoo, get online subscriptions I don’t use, and splurge on life’s greatest joys: books and coffee. And after all this, I manage to save a little.

This means I have enough. But I can’t drive myself to earn more money. I simply don’t see the point.

With all this free time, I am not technically working by society’s standard definition of work—tasks that earn you money. So, if you were to ask me what I’m working on, the honest answer is: I’m doing nothing significant. But who wants to hear that in casual conversation?

Two: I don’t subscribe to the conventional distinction between “work” and “life”. Not for me. As a journalist and writer, my work isn’t separate from my existence; it’s interwoven with my daily life, my observations, my thoughts, and my readings. So, asking me, “What are you working on?” feels misplaced. I’m just living, and I’m generally doing okay. So what’s there to ask?

Three: I’m thirty, and I realised in my twenties that mainstream journalism and the fast-paced city life aren’t for me. Neither are job titles or other societal markers of success. Or all the talk of achievements, awards, credentials—they don’t mean anything. I am not a hermit, and I actively engage with the world, but my primary concern is understanding the complexities of human existence, and spreading some love on the way. That’s it. 

So, through a bit of trial and error, I’ve carved out a lifestyle for myself, rather than a work life. I have endless time to read, think, write, and have a good time. And I’m deeply content with that. Where I get published, who knows my name or who finds my ideas engaging doesn’t matter much to me—it does, but only a little—as long as I can cover my coffee expenses. 

This perspective might seem naive, but if it is, life will surely teach me otherwise. For now, I’m talking about the present.

Four: I don’t really have work-related goals. Actually, the only goals I do have are fitness-related. I’m not on a quest to get somewhere or prepare for some grand future event. (I am trying to do something journalism-related, but the thought process behind it would need more explanation, so I will keep that for later.)

I just find immense joy in honing my writing skills, deepening the quality of my thought processes, and expanding my reading horizons. When I write stories that contain solid ideas and well-crafted sentences—and I know they resonate with at least some people in this otherwise indifferent world—I feel fulfilled. Writing isn’t just what I do; it’s how I exist. To try to describe it as ‘work’ would be…odd. What I can say is that I feel incredibly grateful that my daily life aligns so well with my core values.

Five: None of this is to be pretentious about what others are up to. Everyone has their own preferences, and often circumstances, rather than choice, dictate one’s actions. 

My issue is with the way we frame conversations about work. When someone asks, “What are you working on?” during a first meeting or after a long absence, it seems to tether a person’s worth or identity to their career. Which is alienating for people like me who are neither doing anything ground-breaking, nor fit neatly into traditional forms of employment. Which sets up a tension between my personal inclinations and broader socio-economic norms. 

That dissonance is the core reason I find that question so off-putting.

Six: I also feel that as a society, we’re a bit too obsessed with productivity. I’m happy for those who have structured disciplined routines; I respect them, and there’s always something to learn from them. 

But for me, schedules are foreign territory—I’m rather chaotic by nature. Somehow, I manage to complete both the tasks that the world expects of me and the activities that bring me daily joy.

I don’t count hours for anything. I don’t feel the need to quantify. I’ve grown more attuned to the subjective experiences of the world; for example, I know the profound impact that a brilliantly written paragraph can have on me—words that strike and reshape me—or the moment of illumination while aimlessly wandering, or the joy of watching a perfectly crafted scene in a movie. (I recently watched Casablanca, and it was so gripping that I am still contemplating the complexities of love and sacrifice. Don’t even get me started on the brilliance of that film.)

As long as I’m having these experiences, I know I’m doing alright. So, I don’t keep track of the books I read, the pages I turn, the words I write in a day, or the articles I complete in a month. In short, no metrics for me. My perspective is rooted in a subjective understanding of what makes life worth living. 

Seven: It’s always worth remembering that language shapes thought. It can be both limiting and freeing, and it can perpetuate societal biases. 

For example, as a society, we often undervalue domestic and care work. It’s essential for human well-being but because it’s not part of the formal economy, it’s not considered ‘work’. 

My perspective on this has deepened since I’ve been living alone, dealing with cooking, water supply, and household cleanliness. These tasks are work, too. But when we ask someone, ‘What are you working on?’ it’s often tied to an activity with economic, social, or political implications. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many tasks deserve to be done for their own intrinsic value. Take cooking, for example—I can’t make Kadhai Paneer to save my life, and I want to master it. Just last week, I made Aloo Poori for the first time (with mom’s help, of course), and that remains the highlight of my month.

Truly amazing. 

If you read this, thank you. I don’t know if you were even curious to know what I am working on, but if you ever are, you now know. Bye for now— need to do some important work i.e. dissect why Annie Hall and Alvy Singer broke up in the movie Annie Hall. Catch you later.