Our job titles have a necessary but deceiving purpose. They function as a cheat sheet for assessing the talents, priorities, and standard of living of the titleholder. As a result, we’ve equated a lofty job title with success. It’s why entrepreneurs call themselves “CEO” of a one-person company. Thurgood doesn’t want the world to know what he actually does, so he inflates it a little.
Sometimes it’s easier to view our career paths as a means to getting better job titles. But I can call you “grand master of facilities” and you’d still be miserable and mopping floors like Thurgood. You can be my “lead designer” and still only be creating a small internal newsletter that only a handful of people see. Just because the official paperwork calls you something, it doesn’t mean you’re moving the needle on the stuff that matters to you.
A job title doesn’t give you more interesting projects to work on. It doesn’t necessarily give you more money. It doesn’t increase the likelihood of working with smart people. A well-regarded job title has all the impact of buying a fancy car: people may “ooh” and “ah” but it won’t change your core level of happiness and fulfillment.
Which is why the very concept of the job title is cruel. It represents the external validation that our job affords us. Life becomes easier when you can sum up what you do quickly and impressively. It’s a tragedy that small talk almost always involves the question, “so, what do you do?” Yet, making cool stuff doesn’t always come wrapped in a neat job title that your boyfriend’s mother will understand. “I started a small business as a marketing consultant” doesn’t hold up up as well as “I’m a doctor.” Yet we constantly are asked by others to validate ourselves using this archaic mechanism.
I once attended a conference where a speaker urged us to purge the question “what do you do?” from our small talk repertoire. Instead, he urged, we should ask one another what we were passionate about. Slightly gag-worthy, but a step in the right direction.
The job title is a vestige of a career landscape that is quickly shifting. Our industries don’t have neat little lines around them anymore. Tools, frameworks, and other gains in productivity are speeding up our creative output. Middlemen are being removed. The worker who designed the page and the worker who coded it are increasingly becoming the same person. Take the field of video production: One person can be the talent, the editor, and the publisher.
If you work for a large company, your job title is really a way of putting you into a salary and organizational chart bucket, of making your responsibilities and job seem attractive to the outside world like a real estate agent renaming a neighborhood to sell condos.
The effect (beyond extending our small talk sessions) is that it is especially hard to let other people know that, yes, we actually work for a living. A common conversation topic among my friends is how our parents have no idea what we actually do, and sometimes this mystery can spread to our peers or even our coworkers. As a result, when people ask me what I do, I want to change the subject — not because I’m bummed about what I do, but because I really don’t feel like giving the spiel again.
And then I realized that it’s a good thing that my job takes a few sentences to describe. When our job titles can’t be summed up in a few words it means the succinct version of what we do hasn’t been invented yet. It means our job is on the cutting edge. It means there is no frame of reference quite yet. Imagine asking a programmer in the late 50s what they did. Or a quant trader in the early 80s. Or a UX architect in the 90s. Before the job had a title, it was an explanation. When there’s a word for something, it’s because it’s been codified in our culture. Usually it is because the thing has been around and will be around for so long that we might as well name it. If your job title is something cheeky like “Happiness Officer” when you could just as easily say “Customer Support Rep,” you’ll get no sympathy from me. But if your job is a mash up of jobs from the past past, one that works with new technology, or is in a brand new field of business, take solace in the fact that your job can’t easily be summed up in a widely accepted title. It means you’re doing something cool.
Keep those job titles internally, of course. Something has to go on the org chart. As much as I wish it were so, people are not going to stop asking each other what they do for a living. While we can’t control what your friend’s cousin asks you at a birthday party, we can control what is important to us and the way we measure our own success. By chasing a fancy job title, we’re chasing prestige, and what confers prestige can shift rapidly. Just ask all those bright business school graduates who are leaving miserable finance jobs now that startups are the prestigious thing.
We humans will always need a way to describe what we do, but it shouldn’t serve as a replacement for working on an interesting problem, having great coworkers, or getting paid what we deserve. The truest form of fulfillment comes from the output of a thing or through impacting the lives of others. That is what we should be chasing and that is what we should tell anyone who wants to listen.
I’m not impressed that you’re the VP of product. Or that you work for some hot startup or prestigious firm. Nor should you. I am impressed that the stuff you’ve made is used by thousands of people. So tell me about it, please.
What about you?
How can we better handle our job titles?