The quiet and art-filled office space overlooking majestic oak trees, the joy of working with Mike Mace, the significant source of income for our family. These were things I thought of when I thought of what I was losing when shutting down Rubicon. What I didn’t think of until it happened was this: when you are between things, how do you answer the question of “who are you”?
During this transition, I went to a party to celebrate Nancy Duarte’s latest book, Resonate. I was standing in a group when I was introduced to “Todd, from Apple“. And around the circle, we continued: Glen Lubbert, CEO of Mojo Interactive. Harry Max, advisor at Google. When it came to my turn, because I lacked a title or a “place” on which to anchor, I answered “I am not doing anything right now” to the question of “who I am?”.
(image source: Computer History Museum website)
The lack of title was disarming. I felt small and awkward. Sure I had many accomplishments thus far, and I knew at some level the value that I bring to people and teams would find a new way to manifest. Yet, at that VERY moment, I had no easy handle to capture that. Without the title, I felt at a loss. It was as if I didn’t belong. I actually had the sense right then that I shouldn’t have come to Nancy’s party. And then, both Harry and Glen chimed in to augment the impression I was creating — to add some things I care about, and the kind of work I’ve done to clarify I was “more than” the absence of title at that moment. Even as I write this again, nearly a year later, I am over whelmed by their generosity to step into that void with me. (Could this be a role model for the next time an under-employed or unemployed person is part of your circle?) Since then, this experience has happened over and over again. “What do you do” is persistent. It seems to be the way some people size up to decide whether someone gets attention, or not. It seems to be a way of asking “are you better, or equal, or below me”, which embodies both hierarchical thinking and creates separation between people. When I went to TED2011, I put “board member” of my university (something I spend what, 30 hours of the year doing?) to put something, but that surely didn’t define the whole me. And yes, I did notice the dismissal by some people. And I wondered then what TED could be if the titles were removed.
Because having a title or not does not define someone. The truth is more this: none of us are easily definable. I am not my title. I am not what I do on any given day. And I am not who I am affiliated with. I am none of those things; there are roles I play but they are not me. The lack of my title or easy handle on which to explain myself does not reflect my truth, nor does any outsiders’ validation of it. No amount of titles would make it clear my unique gifts in the world, or yours. (Yet, actually paying attention to what matters to people might actually let us connect with each other.) Titles are simply false standards by which we come to define who we are. But, because they are so pervasive, we believe in them as a truth.
To accept the simple truth of “I AM” changes things. The stance of “I am”, independent of anything, provides a certain freedom. Paul Buchheit describes this by using the phrase “I am Nothing”:
I am nothing. It’s simple. If I were smart, I might be afraid of looking stupid. If I were successful, I might be afraid of failure. If I were a man, I might be afraid of being weak. If I were a Christian, I might be afraid of losing faith. If I were an atheist, I might be afraid of believing. If I were rational, I might be afraid of my emotions. If I were introverted, I might be afraid of meeting new people. If I were respectable, I might be afraid of looking foolish. If I were an expert, I might be afraid of being wrong. But I am nothing, and so I am finally free to be myself.
I would add: If I had a title and I lose it, I have lost myself. If I define myself without title, then I am able to create regardless of any specific role I have at the time.
Our titles are illusions and not reflective of one’s truth. This works both ways. I am not a grand pooh-bah if I have a fancy set of titles. And I am not a lowly piece of shit if I have a junior role within the organizational structure. And we don’t need to have our mobile voicemail message say I am so-and-so-of-such-and-such.
We are each more than our titles; we are each own unique selves. Letting go of these false exterior identities can be difficult and takes time, possibly our entire lifetime. But it starts with us realizing the falsity first, and then moving in the right direction of action. The point is not the title, the point is to do good value-creating, life-affirming, purpose-filled work. You are not nothing, you are endless possibility. How we manifest that endless possibility is our life’s work.