Forget the Title, Tell Me About Yourself!
“Don’t people know that when they die, their title won’t be on their gravestone?”
– George Harrison (former SVP Marketing, Nintendo)
It was during a recent coffee with my semi-retired client and old friend, George, that he uttered that statement. We were discussing his role in mentoring up-and-coming business leaders.
I have been pondering his question. I perpetually struggle to introduce myself to others at the many client meetings and conferences my work requires—there is often that pregnant pause waiting for the “What do you do?” question to insert itself into the space between us, which seems code for the question, “What title do you hold?”
I know from my friends who are stay-at-home-moms and/or “free agents,” that the answer to that seemingly innocuous question can paralyze them, piss them off, and reduce an otherwise healthy human interaction to one of the most surface-level kind. For some, it rolls off their tongue and they may use the title even before they share their name, “I’m VP of Business Development, Jack Spencer,” said with a firm handshake.
What are we without our titles?
Titles from our work lives seem to provide paradoxical roles for us: serving both as invisible identity cloaks wrapping us snugly up in comfort, surety, security, and confidence, and simultaneously acting as shallow and insufficient descriptors of our essential selves.
When uttered, titles often provoke interpretive responses for the receiver. Someone who tells me, “anesthesiologist” automatically goes into my “well-educated and highly technical doctor” bucket whereby someone who says, “truck driver” slides into my “nomadic, blue collar, unhealthy lifestyle” classification. Similarly, when I say “consultant,” I am quite sure to some I enter their “in between jobs and looking for work” category while for others I may be seen as a “road warrior shyster” who charges high prices without giving concrete answers.
We can’t help but make things up about titles.
Most of us don’t really know what certain titles really mean beyond our TV and Hollywood interpretation, or our own narrow experience. For example, I will forever cast anyone I ever meet who tells me they are a “sports agent” as Tom Cruise in “Jerry McGuire.”
Titles when discussed and offered seem to serve as Teflon in relationships with others, protecting us from driving to intimate connection very deeply. They are expedient ways to categorize each other as human beings in ways that provoke knowing nods and agreement.
Still, as my friend George said, they don’t go with us to the grave, or in our memories of one another forged over time. A colleague of mine from the past recently died and as I process his death, I have not considered his title for one moment – I did not do it back when I knew him, and I do not do it now at his time of death. Instead I remember Mark, his smile, his warmth, his love of his wife, and the times we shared.
I propose a new approach to how we describe ourselves to one another when we are asked, “What do you do?” What if we answer the question honestly, colorfully, and with humanity?
I might say, “I try hard every day to be a good Mom, a loving wife, and to deliver good work to clients. Sometimes I cook and today I took a good long walk.”
My doctor acquaintance might say, “I coach my son’s lacrosse team and for work I help people receive lifesaving medical care to alleviate their pain.”
My truck driver friend might say, “Most days I deliver stuff that people want and need while listening to books on tape and music I love. When I am off, I enjoy gardening.”
Our actual identities are complex and multi-faceted. Let’s stop reducing ourselves to a sound bite for the comfort of another. By offering an answer beyond the title, we may succeed in actually connecting with another person, which most of us deeply crave.
Starting now, instead of “What do you do?,” try “Tell me about yourself?”
Yes indeed, that works.