Roll tape: You walk into your office on an ordinary Friday after, say, a year at a midsize up-and-coming creative agency. It’s quiet. Just before 9am. Modest Mouse plays, sanguine, on Sonos.
You set your things down, head to the communal kitchen, and pour a cup of coffee in your favorite mug; fill a pint glass of water (hydrate!) and take it back to your workspace. You settle in, adjust the height of your desk, down a superpack of plant-based vitamins, and dig into a project assigned a few days before.
Shit’s chill. That adulting badge looks real good on you right now.
And then, as if rounding a corner and happening upon a fresh car accident, the scene starts to register. Looking through the glass of the sole conference room — the crown jewel of this open floor plan — the first of several victims in a company-wide layoff transpires. The scene is surreal, but isn’t.
It happens again. CEO comes in, HR escorts coworker out. Tears, tissues, side-door exit.
“We’ll send a courier with your personal effects.”
You barely utter a whisper to the deskmate on your left: I think they were just let go. A tap on the shoulder. You jerk to the right. “I need to see you,” says the CEO.
The scene replays, tissue box and table, as you’re given a steely-eyed apology while the ship goes down. There aren’t enough lifeboats. We’ll send a courier.
And just like that, three sips of coffee into an otherwise typical agenda, you’re out of work. Disavowed of your position. Stripped of everything you’ve wrapped up in that title about your identity.
So, what do you do?
What’s in a (professional) name?
When we meet someone in the wild, say, at a bar, Friendsgiving, or finger puppet theater, the question often arises, “so… what do you do?” The response is usually, “I’m a [noun].” I mean, not literally “a noun,” but something that fits the mold. “I’m a strategist.” “I’m an info worker.” “I’m a UX ninjaneer with some seriously fire design wizardry skills.”
Earned or chosen, titles describe, qualify, and even quantify. Like guidelines, they distinguish the self from all others and help keep us from unnecessarily overlapping efforts. A strategist, to borrow from Alex Morris’ Strategy & Planning Scrapbook, doesn’t get to make the thing(s), but their brief should evoke precisely what’s needed. Titles are helpful for clients, too, who need a shorthand for what skills you have and how you’ll use them to solve a given problem.
But back to that question at the bar. Maybe, for the sake of conversational efficiency, we hover around the noun-title. Explaining the essence of the actions necessary to perform a role is a lot more convoluted in the moment. Nouns are simple, verbs are messy. Transient, even.
So we objectify; We become objects, not just for the pleasure of others but for simplicity. It can even be gratifying when there’s status and social capital associated with a title. Are you a copywriter or a senior copywriter? Account exec or account director? Sea level or C-level?
As time goes on, you may ask yourself, my god — am I enough? Am I too much? (Somebody make a meme for that feeling when you get a title raise, but not a fiscal raise.) If I’m too much, what am I too much of, exactly? Here lies the obvious danger in conflating net worth and self worth.
The good news is there’s a way to break ties with the sense of identity wrapped up in your title; it’s not easy, but it’ll pay off during the the many incarnations of your career.
The many lives of squishy people
Long ago, in a park bench-ridden existential crisis far, far away, I was told by illustrator Chris Lyons that a layoff is a baptism wherein you should congratulate yourself for finally making it into the industry.
I liken the experience to something more like a liminal period between two lives in a reincarnate cycle. Buddhists call it bardo. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) think of it as beneath-the-ground waiting for the right time to flow back up to the earth realm as a New Face in a new epoch.
A chance park bench encounter turned out to be a portal to a new way of thinking (thanks, Chris). Forced, voluntary, or otherwise, a time and space for being still and remembering how to be a whole human is an opportunity. For me, a transformation point.
You know what’s thrilling about being in marketing? Mutability. We’re not doctors or plumbers or air traffic control. We’re idea people. Squishy, squishy idea people in an industry that fluctuates dramatically. Some enjoy rolling with the tides of agency life, oscillating between full-time and free agent. Others might pine for job security and find solace in climbing the ladder with certain titles in their sights.
For some, synonymizing identity with “job title” becomes a cyclical tension. While it’s adjacent to marketing, I’m also thinking about the 2,200 recent media layoffs; there are a lot of people floating in search of buoy, boat, or bastion in an economy where as much as 20 percent of all Americans declared as contract workers.
To survive we have to be — bear with a thought leadership buzzword — agile. Our privilege is movement.
So do the thing
When a change in title doesn’t feel right, or when the indium rod of professional identity drops out the bottom of the ego, is your value intact if you can’t see it? Title it? Call it by any other name?
As goes the saying, actions speak louder than words. So do the thing. Do your thing.
What five actions and behaviors make you a valuable problem solving partner? Experiment with describing the actions and behaviors of your role. Verb that shit and break the objectification cycle. Team to team, project to project, try a different elevator pitch at every opportunity and see what comes up.
And when you run up against a wall where defining yourself as a thing is necessary, you’ll be more certain of your core competencies and potential paths for growth.