COLUMN: What are you going to do with that?

“So, you basically study poetry,” a family friend and doctor said to me over a bowl of holiday cashews. “What are you gonna do with that?”

More than anything, I would have liked to sincerely explain that I study poetry because it enriches my life; I want to read and write good poems, poetry is culturally valuable and so on. It was “the holidays” after all; a time to draw friends and family closer together.

“I’m going to play professional tennis,” I replied. “But, first, I have to go wash my hands.”

It is unlikely that anyone asked him when he was in medical school what he was “going to do with that.” This common, dubious question is not asked by people who are genuinely interested in a response.

“What are you going to do with that?” is a question asked with a raised eyebrow by incurious individuals who either think your field doesn’t merit their slightest consideration or that it is a flat-out joke. It’s a question people ask when they don’t care; a euphemistic vehicle for the even less polite question, “How are you going to make money?”

Apologists for the offending question will probably excuse themselves by insisting that your field of study is complicated and difficult to understand. But poetry is no less an esoteric field than medicine. The same can be said of philosophy, fiber arts, auto mechanics, astronomy, zookeeping, photography, interior design, religion, quantum physics, robots, music, landscaping, anthropology ...

There is an incomprehensibly wide world of fascinating subjects you probably know nothing about. Luckily, other people do. And you can talk to them.

You can’t learn anything about dinosaurs by asking a paleontology student what he or she is “going to do with that.” Maybe you don’t care about dinosaurs in the first place, but that future paleontologist cares a lot about dinosaurs and has much to tell you about them if you show even the slightest interest.

The world is too big not to be interested in people, and you should be able to muster enough curiosity to get beyond “what are you going to do with that?” You will get a decent conversation out of it if nothing else. So here are some alternatives:

How do they figure out what dinosaurs ate? What’s your favorite constellation? Who invented the piano? Where’s the best cup of coffee in New York? When should I rotate my tires? Why do whales sing?

Try it out the next time you feel like asking “what are you going to do with that?” You might be surprised to find out how much people can teach you.


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