Don’t Tell Me What You Do: You May Have Been Mislabeled

The labels we have to categorize the work creatives do are antiquated, but it’s not the labels that need to be modernized, but our understanding of the roles we play in our work.

Originally posted on February 4, 2015 and now moved to Medium.

Working as a creative, I have a hard time explaining what I do when the omnipresent “what do you do for work?” comes up in conversation. Part of the issue is that the labels we have to categorize vocations are outdated and their realities have changed since they were first coined. The other part is that the different lines of work are increasingly overlapping and it is nearly impossible to successfully categorize oneself any single one of them. It is not, however, the labels that need to be updated to accommodate the change, but our framing of the concept of work as a whole.

Job postings typically focus on tasks and inputs, though employers’ expectations are increasingly focused around the outputs and what contribution the employee can have towards the success of the project, company or organization as a whole. In the realm of freelance work, fewer clients seek technical solutions (e.g. someone to build a website), as they are looking for someone who can invest into their business (e.g. someone who can help them grow their business online). As such, it is equally as hard for a business to hire a “good” web designer, as it is for a freelancer to sell oneself as merely a web designer.

Those who find themselves in this awkward place of overlapping disciplines are, I think, actually in a very good place to be. Not only you have a unique value proposition, but you are also in a position to explore uncharted territories and come up with solutions that are significantly better. You are in a unique place to make a big contribution, be it for your employer, your client or your own project.

As a freelancer, this seems like a future-proof bet. As automation and the availability of technologies simplifies, reduces and dismisses tasks that can be performed by a machine, the role of human labor is shifting towards other tasks like ideation and creativity. As we move away from manual tasks, “fortune will instead favor […] those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.” (Foreign Aff.)

What does this work look like? I don’t expect there to be an answer, recipe or label. It sounds ambiguous, but I think overcoming this discomfort is key. We dislike uncertainty and questions that don’t have answers, we need to resist the temptation to fall back into labels and job descriptions, both as an employer and an employee.

But, what do you do for work? I will still have to answer the question, but I will try to not think about what to call it, but rather what I can do for this person, company or organization. I help companies grow their business, I am passionate about creating things, I believe technology can help people reach their full potential. If I’m talking to a potential client, I can think of ways that will grow their business. If it’s a fellow freelancer, I can look for ways to work together or help one another. If I’m talking to a friend or relative, I can look for interests we have in common or relate to work that they can understand and appreciate.

I believe that if we focus on the value and ideas we can bring, and not let labels, titles and diplomas dictate what we chose to do, we can better develop our inner potential and find more opportunities to pursue things we are passionate about.

It’s scary to follow my gut and dive into the unusual overlaps, but it’s simply not worth doing otherwise.