Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Let’s Kill The Job Title

One of my favorite career lessons comes courtesy of Dave Chappelle in the movie “Half Baked.” In the beginning of the film, his character, Thurgood, tells the story of his career path. As he is mopping floors, he tells us, “I, myself, am a master of the custodial arts. Or a janitor if you want to be a dick about it.” 

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.

Just because the official paperwork calls you something, it doesn’t mean you’re moving the needle on the stuff that matters to you.

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.

Making cool stuff doesn’t always come wrapped in a neat job title that your boyfriend’s mother will understand.

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, 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.

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. 

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?

Sean Blanda

more posts →
Sean is the Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.
load comments (22)
  • Scott

    I couldn’t agree more. I believe titles play a major role in self-limitation, especially in large organizations. The minute you let go of your job title is the minute you realize that you can contribute in a multitude of ways you never realized before. Thank you for writing this. If you’re interested, I wrote a medium post on this about six months ago entitled, Don’t believe your business card.

  • Nicholas Mann

    Don’t forget about those who called themselves a “Photoshop Ninja”.

    • Sean Blanda

      Rockstars and Ninjas. Blegh.

      • Ian Garlic

        I always wanted to be a ninja. Now everyone is one. I am not sure if they really know what this word means. ;)

  • Josh Emeric

    Its amazing what can get done when your not concerned about who gets the credit.

    • Sean Blanda


  • Niko

    well put..I would much rather see a job title that is refreshingly goofy

  • Allyson Twiggs Dyer

    Yes! Great post. I love the idea of asking “what are you passionate about” makes me not dread networking conversations so much anymore.

  • Matthew

    It is nice to have some ‘struggle room’ with explaining what I do. Seems I tell each person slightly different because I don’t have a quick way to say it. This way, I sort of get to reflect on what I do each time I’m asked. In the realm of ‘User Experience’, this is pretty important, I think.

    • Amy Santee

      I do the same. Depending on the occasion and person I’m talking with, I’m a UX researcher, design researcher, applied anthropologist, research consultant… and the list goes on. You point out something important, too, which is that each opportunity gives us a chance to reflect on and refine how we talk about ourselves and our work.

  • Sam Elhayek

    There’s a lot of good points in this article, what I have observed though, is that the usual response to “What do you do?” seems to have elicted a sales pitch from the responding person.

    People are always trying to sell themselves to people they don’t know, because they never know where the next opportunity would be.

    To me, honesty is the best course of action, and being able to just talk about who you are as a person, is much more exciting than hearing about “What you do.”

    All of us are human beings, and getting to know someone before knowing “What they do” seems to build a better relationship right from the start.

    Ask about the music that they like, or like you mentioned, what they are passionate about. The transparency, and being “down to Earth” really goes a long way.

    • Ian Garlic

      While I believe we have to sell ourselves, when I hear someones title I look for commonalities. However, when I hear what they do, i immediately think of ways to helps them.

  • Ian Garlic

    I have struggle over this whole topic often at Job titles mean so much to both the title holder and everyone they encounter. It can often be a compass when deciding what to do next. Job title’s can be short hand for skill sets too.

    Maybe becoming accepting of a dynamic story instead of a job title? Maybe a “Role Percentage chart”?

  • Davina K. Brewer

    I’ve been in more than a few meetings when the round robin started, everyone being introduced – then quickly nipped it in the bud when they went with the job titles. I’m like “I work with people, not job titles.” Same w/ resumes. It’s people that do the work, people that come up with ideas, it’s the ideas and work that matter.

    I cannot agree more on the ‘succinct version’ – it’s why I have trouble with my biz, my career. Less is more, you want that ‘easy to get’ title or explanation but for what I do, the range of talents and expertise I offer, there’s no quick and simple way to say it. And FWIW also not a fan of the cheeky, overly vague silly made up ‘that’s a real job?!’ kind of job titles.

  • crateish

    A lot of resumes have come across my desk. There sure are a lot of ‘Director’ level people out there. And there sure are a lot of companies out there looking for ‘Director level’ people, when in fact they mean ‘entry level’ people, based on what they are willing to pay.

    BS job titles go both ways.

    • Sean Blanda

      I once had an shrewd manager say to me “job titles are free.” He’d gladly inflate someone’s title instead of paying them more.

  • Karrie

    Thank you for this article. I am a Receptionist and though it is my title are do more than what people associate with the job. I have been trying to get into PA work which is the next step up (both in work content and the title ladder)but have been struggling because people see my job title and put me in that box though the content of my CV explains a lot of the things I do is PA based however HR people do not look at when they skim through volumes of CV’s. This something that recruitment agents have told me too. Furthermore as I look for jobs I avoid any reception titles my self or anything like Admin Assistant which sounds be better than Reception but worse than PA. I also see a lot of jobs called PA but the actually description has more or a reception role, most obvious is that one is sitting out at the reception desk.
    Anyway this article has been helpful in not making me feel so bad about my tittle. Now I just need to stop telling people I am a PA when I am not. It is hard to say what my official job title is but this article has helped tremendously.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,151 other followers