No more job titles!

The hardest part about writing a resume or a bio is condensing everything about yourself into a pretty little package.

When you write your first, as a fledgling proto-adult copy-pasting from sample-resume.docx, you wish you had more stuff to put on there. It’d be so easy to write if only you’d actually done anything. But once you’ve circled the block a few times, you start to realize what every good writer knows: cutting is a lot harder than making wordcount. Should you leave out the personal project you’re passionate about which has no real bearing on the job? Do your readers really need to know about all your cats? Tough decisions — but what you pick will drastically influence the reader’s perception of you.

At a party when someone asks you, “what do you do?” chances are they don’t really want to hear a comprehensive accounting of every action you’ve ever taken. Instead they’re looking for something pithy: a hook on which to hang their opinion of you, or something to ground the small-talk.

The idea of a “jack-of-all-trades” (with the obvious corollary, “master of none,”) is one that’s traditionally been pejorative. Chris Bowler makes a good case for the merits of “purposeful generalists” in his article, A New Kind of Craftsman:

Can a person make a living in our modern time by being pretty good at a lot of things, rather than extremely proficient at one?

Yes, indeed.

As recently as half a century ago, the whole thrust of industry was still towards specialization. But over the last few decades we’ve seen this direction completely reversed. More and more specific trades are squashed to nothing, as machines and computers enable people to accomplish a much wider range of tasks with less domain knowledge.

My grandfather, for example, worked as a newspaper stereo typist — a profession that it’s now hard to even find on Google. Stereotyping — the setting of type and plates in formes in order to cast a plate that could withstand a large newspaper print run — still exists, more or less, but good luck finding a job doing it. It’s one of the many professions that have fallen into the cracks between others as they expand.

With this broadening of job responsibilities also comes a trend of horizontal advancement: moving up in your career by taking a job in a different company, sometimes even a different industry. It used to be the case that once you got a job you might stay at a company for the rest of your life. If you did make a move it would most likely be to a similar kind of company. Businesses were far more likely to promote from within, and staying in one place was beneficial in the longterm.

The “company man” is no longer anything more than an nervous fiction dreamed up by places that can’t afford to pay you enough.

A rose would smell as sweet

The wider the range of your skills and responsibilities, the harder it becomes to narrow down your job to something that will fit nicely on a business card, but still adequately describe what you do. A whole range of job titles have emerged to deal with this: each more nebulous than the next. Innovation architect. Technologist. We cling to these useless, non-descriptive terms — slippery handles on the giant grab-bag of our daily work.

Even though it might not mean much, job title is still something one can spend hours agonizing over. Unrelated as it might be to the practical actions you carry out on a daily basis, it’s often strongly tied to the salary you receive, as well.

But this crisis isn’t just limited to work that pays the bills. Are you a writer, a photographer, an artist? Hardly anyone seems to be capable of making a straightforward rule for when you are allowed to apply one of these terms to yourself.

Matt Gemmell wrote a piece a while back about the trouble he has defining himself:

I’ve always hesitated to call myself a writer, even though I’d like to. I undoubtedly am one, but it’s another thing entirely to characterise yourself that way. I don’t have any published novels, for example, though I’d like to change that. I’ve written dozens of pieces for various publications, but we have the word “journalist” for that situation. Similarly, we have “blogger”, which is usually the least respected of the three titles (entirely undeservedly).

This hesitation will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to do something creative. How much of the thing do you have to create before you can identify yourself as a creator of it? Some would argue that taking even one picture makes you a photographer — you don’t need to study or practice for a long time. Others are bent on restricting the criteria necessary to adopt the mantle: surely snapping a picture of your feet and plastering a filter on it can’t be all it takes. What does the term photographer really mean if it applies to anyone on planet earth?

Do we really need to perpetually broaden the terms we use to encapsulate ever-growing meanings? Identity is painfully important, but not at the expense of all accuracy, surely?

Dodge the dilemma

The only way out of this sinking mire of semantic angst is to just stop worrying about how to define yourself and start worrying more about making or doing such excellent work that it stands on its own without a job title to back it up.

“When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.”

—Walter Payton

When you write a resume for a job, you chop out as much that isn’t relevant as you can. No one assumes that you are the sum total of the items on your one-page resume.

Let’s abolish job titles completely. Let whoever wishes to call themselves a writer, a photographer, a whatever. The end result is all that really matters, and that’s what will stand, long after the momentary discomfort of not quite being able to define oneself has passed.