I recently started a new job as a retail display coordinator. Having been with my company for five years I assumed people would have a vague understanding of the display branch and, therefore, what I would be doing in my new position. Not so. A few dozen tragic conversations later, I’ve discovered it’s incredibly difficult to grasp.
“I create the displays for the store,” I say.
“Oh, so you dress the mannequins and set out the clothes.”
“No, that’s what a merchandiser does. I create the displays around the clothes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, the window displays. And things that hang over the clothes, or go on the walls around the clothes. I make those.”
“Oh. So the company sends you things and you hang them up?”
“No, I make them myself.”
Then upon realizing there is still no mutual understanding, we both smile, nod, and move on.
This isn’t an uncommon experience for people who work in the arts. Our jobs aren’t typical and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all job description for us to turn to.
In my case, what makes it more confusing for people is that I don’t have an art degree; I studied journalism and English in college. In the middle of that, I spent a summer earning my wedding planning certification. I also interned in marketing at a natural history museum, and most of my undergraduate electives were in film and theatre studies.
I like a lot of different things, and I always thought that would work to my advantage. In college I was led to believe that getting experience in a variety of disciplines was a good thing because it showed versatility. Unfortunately, employers tend to desire three+ years of experience in one thing. I had 6 months of experience in 10 things, which makes me look scattered and unfocused.
I was lucky enough to find a creative job where I can go to work and do something completely new every day, with a flexible schedule that will allow me to still pursue writing and wedding planning on weekends. But it took me an entire year post-graduation to get it, and I have far too many friends and acquaintances who are still searching for employment that will allow them to do the same.
A former colleague of mine recently quit her job — a full-time, 9–5 job with benefits and a 401(k) — because the demanding hours were making her physically ill and she had no time to pursue her creative passions. To another generation that would be inconceivable. You don’t just willingly give up job security. But if we’re facing reality, the generation of job security has long passed. You can’t guarantee being able to work in the same company forever, or even the same field forever.
The entire structure of our career culture is backwards. Cast a wide net, but only pick one fish, and don’t get too attached to the fish once you’ve caught it.
Career focus has been a key part of our education since the millennial generation hit high school. Know what you want to do with your life by 8th grade. Take electives and AP courses in your desired field of study. Apply for colleges when you’re 16, and stay the course.
Who I was at 16 and who I am today are completely different people. Who I was when I started college and who I was when I finished college are completely different people. It’s baffling to think that what I choose to do and who I choose to be should be the same my entire life.
People are filled with complexities. Our job market does not like complexity — it likes to put people in boxes of experience and qualifications without recognizing the humanity behind them. There’s a level of shame in not being able to boil your life’s pursuits down to an elevator pitch, and there shouldn’t be.
I’d like to abolish the question “what do you do?” (and not just because my current job requires an awkward answer.) What I do does not define who I am, and who I am does not define what I do. I am not just one thing. Nobody is.