Eric Karjaluoto

Your Title is a Cage

A job title used to work like a tagline or validating statement—and for some, it still probably is. So, the statement, “I’m Jen, and I’m an oncologist,” helps me identify this person, understand the work she does, and even ascertain her role in society. However, in a post-job world—which we seem to be entering—titles don’t work quite like they once did.

For those working as employees, titles are like a fence—and the larger the organization, the more imposing this barrier becomes. The designer in a large agency isn’t likely to pick up a camera when they need a quick snapshot, because that’s the photographer’s territory, not theirs. This viewpoint is doubly problematic as it limits the practitioner’s growth, while making the organization less nimble and more management heavy. Although a degree of focus is required to master one’s craft, a cursory understanding of other tasks tends to strengthen one’s capabilities, flexibility, and long-term opportunities.

As workers move up the ranks in organizations, titles are often used as restraints—which masquerade as markers of achievement. The more that pride is entwined with your role, the more dependent you can be made. Although many see servitude as the domain of the entry-level employee, these individuals are actually quite portable. Any McDonald’s employee can say “fuck this job,” walk away, and find something similar to do. However, upon reaching a mid-level management role, it’s difficult to not allow this newfound status to affect lifestyle, behavior, and purchasing habits; thus, making you dependent on that title, and more apt to bow when told to. There seems to be an inherent law in titles: the more impressive yours is, the less freedom you have.

For the free agent, titles are simply misrepresentative. For example, I call myself a Creative Director, but this title is largely bullshit. My daily work is as a designer, but I use a different title because that’s what I believe most clients expect when hiring a new agency. This label makes little affordance for the strategic work I do, the amount of writing I’m tasked with, nor the odd jobs I complete—ranging from cleaning up files to negotiating our lease, or picking up coffee beans, or defining processes. There’s no single term that properly defines what I do, and I suspect many like me feel the same way. On the weekend I spotted a colleague’s LinkedIn profile that contained three distinct titles for his current role. I figure he’s either indecisive, narcissistic, or suffering from the same case of what-do-I-call-myself-itis as me.

The world is changing away from an industrialized paradigm, and particularly for those in the developed world. The strict definition of one’s job type or skill-set simply doesn’t carry the same relevance as in the past. It’s not just that these titles have shortcomings; it’s that titles are locked in a outmoded model. And by thinking in these terms, you put your future in jeopardy. If I consider myself a designer, I tend to see through this specific lens, and become less apt to consider alternate possibilities. Sure, I build websites and brands for others, but, what prevents me from starting my own companies, writing books, or making a documentary—aside from the (false) belief that these jobs are outside my domain?

Of course, certain areas of expertise, like medicine, require such a high level of study and specialization that they are by their very nature excluded from this discussion. A great many of us are operating in far murkier territory. Our roles aren’t defined by a label, but rather by what we can make happen. (Clients don’t hire me because they need a new corporate identity; they hire me because something they’re trying to communicate isn’t being conveyed.) Thus, the job title becomes more of a starting point, or piece of secondary information, that we need to treat with less weight than we currently do.

When meeting new people, one often asks, “What do you do?” The response most give is broken. Instead of answering the question, they’ll simply respond with a job title. Perhaps in years to come, we’ll start answering this question by describing our acts, instead of stating a label that has been chosen or assigned. In the meanwhile, the question for you might be one of how your title can move you forward, instead of allowing it to limit your actions and possibilities.

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