You are not your job title
And you don’t want to be.
I stare at my resume (or LinkedIn profile now I suppose) and wonder what I should type beside my name. Am I a UI developer? A graphic designer? An Information Architect or a User Experience designer? Oh but I also like singing at weddings, how about an Information Experience Entertainer? That’s sure to confound grandma at dinner.
I’ve always had trouble classifying what I do into a neat little box. If you took a good look at your own skill set, you’d find it hard too. We’ve been bred by society to think that every person fits into a single-label box — because that way, you’re easier to compare to the fellow in the box sitting next to you.
If you think about why though, it makes a lot of sense. There are now more than 7.4 billion people on the planet. When my wife who works in human resources is tasked with reviewing 100 resumes in one afternoon, it’s understandable that she needs to reduce everyone to their most similar characteristics to pick which person excels the most.
A long time ago, 100 years before Facebook
Before the internet, grouping people into specific traits made a lot more sense because the people vying for those jobs were actually very similar. They were trained at the same schools, cut from the same culture cloths, brainwashed by the same propaganda posters, etc.
But now we have the largest information library (the internet) in the history of mankind available to the largest population that’s ever existed. There are so many ways to learn different things like edutainment, elearning, wikipedia, and even sites called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). And because of them — people are more different than ever, and that’s something to be celebrated.
I’m not even speaking from a moral, diversity-is-the-right-way-to-go standpoint, I’m speaking strictly on the basis of efficacy.
If we all compete on the same things, we lose the ability to be unique
I hate Monopoly. The beginning is fun where nobody really owns any property yet and we get to see the impulsive spending habits of the players (usually family), but once the board’s full I check out. I check out because a. if I don’t, it will most likely end in a broken relationship of some sort, and b. everyone’s competing for the same damn stuff.
In Zero to One, Peter Thiel argues competition is the antithesis of capitalism. If we really want to create value, stop competing. Competition is like a Monopoly board — everyone will fight over their portion of the board, but the total value created is only ever equal to the total number of properties that are there.
Instead, we should be busy creating new properties on new boards and ultimately building new categories of stuff instead of fighting for pieces of what already exists. Which sort of makes sense, the board game does gets boring pretty fast (Boggle however, is a different story).
“Competition means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival.” — Peter Thiel
Now picture those Monopoly properties as people’s skills. The focus on comparing people by narrowing them down to a few key traits and weighing them against each other like that is unhealthy. Yet we do it all the time, our education system is built on this premise where only a tiny fraction of students make it into the most competitive schools. One look at the last half century will tell you that method doesn’t necessarily correlate with the greatest contributions to society.
What’s worse, the valuable people and opportunities we miss out on can’t really show themselves because, well, we never see what they could have been. Maybe Apple’s “Think Different” slogan is more than meets the eye.
“All happy companies are different: All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.” — Peter Thiel
UX Designer by day, dog trainer by night
By title I’m a UX designer. I learned how to code too, sure, I can throw that on my list of competitive skills. The crossover benefits are pretty clear — as I design digital products, understanding how they work is really helpful especially when I have to work with engineers all the time. But you know what else I do that doesn’t compete with another bajillion designers? I sing at weddings. I also train dogs. Well, more like dog. As I write this my 5 month old puppy is passed out on his pee pad.
I’m not trying to be facetious — these things actually make me better at my job. When I learned to sing, I found that paying for singing lessons wasn’t as effective as listening to the vocalist masters that I thought were amazing — Tony Bennet, Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc.
I’d put 15 second clips on repeat for hours and try to reverse engineer why they would sing a line the way they did. I’d pick what I liked about the decisions they made and add them to my incredibly vast repertoire of shower singing skills.
I take the same approach with design. I find the most effective way to learn is to study interfaces I think are great, reverse engineer them and critically think about why decisions were made. Then I keep what I like and I stay away from decisions I thought were poor.
Same goes for dog training — I studied and watched dozens and dozens of hours of videos and read theories that contradicted each other to improve my skills. My greatest finding — dogs learn the quickest when they receive feedback for an action they took in under a second. Humans? Not as different as you may think (they are our best friends after all). Every design I create where there is a greater than one second delay between a user action and the result they receive, I know I’ve already lost him or her.
My point is, even though we each have a single job title, whenever we make work-related decisions (if you work in a knowledge-based industry at least) we each reach deep into the cross-functional knowledge we have engrained in our experiences to make us more effective. To some degree, it’s almost subconscious.
Some really boring technical facts that are actually pretty cool
In 2004 a study was released for the Harvard Business School where someone went and found a bunch of homogenous people and got them to create some patents for solutions that they would come up with as a team.
Go figure, the physicists came up with consistently good solutions to physics problems and the marketing professionals came up with consistently good solutions to marketing problems.
The interesting thing is — he did the same experiment with a whole bunch of people that were from very different fields. For example, physics problems were to be solved by a whole bunch of marketers, artists, master gardeners, etc. (not exactly this setup, but you get the gist of it.) As you’d expect, the quality of the solutions these teams came up with was on average, lower than the quality of the homogenous teams. But! On rare occasions, they were able to create breakthroughs that the homogenous teams could never see.
Basically, guess what — you want to have breakthroughs? Don’t get a bunch of people who all think alike. Get people who are different. People who have deep understandings of completely different fields (doesn’t matter how different) are able to challenge everything from the ground up and don’t rely on assumptions that the homogenous experts take for granted.
So, let’s all start learning about things that have nothing to do with what our job titles say we do — not only because it’d be really fun to have titles like “ux designer + sword wielder + medium writer” (see what I did there), but because we actually we become more effective at work.
Ok, that’s great from a business perspective. But what about in society?
I’d argue that the same principle applies. Just as having knowledge of completely distant specialties helps us challenge business assumptions, we’re also able to think more critically about the assumptions that society has. Is the UK really better off without the EU? Maybe if there were more people from different backgrounds thinking critically the votes may have tallied up differently. Or maybe not.
So, we know that nobody is only what their job title says they are, and we know that that’s a good thing. We also know that it’s a better time than ever to strive to be more than what your job title says you are, because the internet makes it infinitely better to learn a lot about a dizzying amount of stuff. Two good things = an even better thing.
Let’s not get caught at the local maximum of human potential. Instead let’s make it a point to learn, challenge, and dare to venture outside what’s comfortable so we can all have breakthroughs of our own.
Separately, if I haven’t exhausted your Medium reading quota yet, check out “Learning sucks. I’d rather watch Netflix”.
If you liked this, go ahead and ♥ it! Follow me for more thoughts on design, product, life, and dog training. Good luck bettering yourself, and try not to take anything I say too seriously!