Aside

And, Who Are You?

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.

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57 Responses:

  1. Peter Salvitti. August 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm  |  

    Nilofer,

    Great post, reminds me of another of your great posts: “Normalcy is a Unicorn.” When I left my last position (semi-voluntarily) nearly 4-months ago I had that same empty feeling whenever I was asked to fill in the proverbial blank. Sad to say that this is how we are generally assessed by others when in a social situation.

    I’ve always strived to be as genuine as possible–the person I am around family and friends is the same person you get at work. And yet, despite my attempts to not live behind any superficial veneers, there it was: I had become the title in front of the person. I have to say that once the initial shock of NOT having a title began to wear off, I began to see the truth in what was possible when no longer tethered to a title.

    The great John Wooden used to say that ability may get you to the top but it takes character to stay there. I would add your words “you are not nothing, you are endless possibilities.”

    Thank you for another uplifting post. I’m glad I was able to meet you during your swing in the Boston area.

    Best,
    Peter S.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 24, 2011 at 10:56 pm  |  

      I’m wondering what we could do to shift these conversations. Maybe we could put out our hands and ask first, “what are you passionate about”. We might get some strange looks at first, but then probably a smile will emerge and an interesting conversation would follow.

      Reply
      • Peter Salvitti. August 24, 2011 at 11:48 pm  |  

        As @john-r-s (below) indicates, this seems to be a American peculiarity. I wasn’t born in the U.S. and as such my intros tend to be more open and conversational. Not as direct as you suggest, though I may try that!

        Also, as @curt suggests, I’ve always led with the kinds of problems I deal with vs. my title; or, in the case of consulting, the vertical space where I play …

        Thanks again for a thought-provoking and uplifting post.

        Reply
        • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:48 am  |  

          Peter, thanks for starting the dialogue.

          Reply
  2. Khalid. August 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm  |  

    Nilofer,

    If I may stalk you in this post also :)

    You once asked me a question in one of my replies to your posts about my dream of getting PHD! You said this is not a goal by itself, it is a means to reach a goal and you were correct!

    My aim, though I felt embaressed to say it by then, is the title!

    In our culture, the family name plays a big role in promotions and the way people defines YOU

    The first thing when you meet someone is to ask about your name and then wait for your family name. And guess what, I don’t have a family name (removed by my grand father for some reasons) so I get that face of not knowing what to say.

    I’m sure you might not imagine how embarrassing this is in the place where I live but it does

    I myself don’t care much about that until I face such moments

    This is one reason of course apart of my ampecious to KNOW more and escalate my way of thinking but I had to mention this in relaion to your nice post.

    Regards,
    Khalid

    Reply
  3. Curt Beckmann. August 24, 2011 at 7:48 pm  |  

    Even though we are NOT our titles, titles can be useful. As I read this post, I wondered “how might I make good use of my title without being subject to the pitfalls?” It occurs to me that I could change my language a little. Instead of saying “I’m a principal architect”, I could say “my title is principle architect” or “my current role is principle architect” or something along those lines.

    On a related note, I’ve noticed that the VP’s I work with rarely mention their titles. Instead, they say “I run the X product line”, which is a bit ambiguous, but at least it says “I do this” rather than “I am that”. With that in mind, perhaps I could say “I handle architectural issues” or something. That answers “what do you do?” rather than “who are you?” Beyond that, I still have to be sure that I don’t equate “what I do” with “who I am.”

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 24, 2011 at 10:57 pm  |  

      I think that’s an interesting observation — that VPs don’t mention titles. Is it that they are more comfortable with their focus/ passion area and therefore aren’t jockeying for position. (one would hope).

      Reply
  4. Brian. August 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm  |  

    I spent 10 years at a Fortune 1000 company where I became a good implementer, but a terrible strategic thinker. I was laid off in late 2009 when budgets tightened and perhaps my weaknesses in strategy helped make the decision. While unemployed, I continued attending social and professional events where I was confronted with the same issues you mention above. However, no Harrys and Glens were there to help me at the time; I had to paddle that wobbly canoe on my own for a couple of months. The experience got me going, gathering ideas and input from the people I care the most about and have spent the most time with in my life (work and personal). I asked them what I appear to value most and what I am good and great at. It was a revealing and encouraging (if not unintentionally collaborative) process that led me to start my own company by April 2010, where the nature of entrepreneurship helps you transcend any concept of titles gained while working within other companies. Within 6 months I had a full schedule of client projects and I raised my rates. Within a year of launching, I was offered (and accepted) a regular/salaried position with one of my clients (whose services I had purchased before and in whom I believe deeply). I’ll be managing a number of key areas in the business–including marketing, communications, and collaborating on strategy with the founder/president. When I was asked what I wanted my title to be, I told them I’d think about it, but honestly….I was stumped. Until today, I thought I was alone in this hesitation. Given the economic and social changes we’ve all experienced and/or watched in the past 3 years, your last paragraph is especially powerful: validating, and timely for your readers who struggle with identity and esteem while in transition.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm  |  

      Well, I hope some people in transition find a way to describe themselves (I’ve finally settled on “rocket fuel”) and maybe we can all find more interesting ways to engage this dialogue.

      Reply
  5. Glen Lubbert. August 24, 2011 at 8:56 pm  |  

    Inspiring as usual.

    It was easy to fill in and say what value you bring during that introduction at Nancy’s party. As a source of inspiration, it’s a joy to talk endlessly about all the things that result from someone who gives you that much fuel.

    I’m fascinated by identity as social media asks us to define and categorize who we are. It asks us to consider how we are viewed by different groups. Facebook and Google are debating that with their dueling Circles “privacy” features.

    I see a culture shift occurring in how we perceive identity. When you can see so much more of one’s life, you see people for more than just their job. It’s much harder to be a work title you and a home you. You are you. Authenticity becomes the easiest course of action.

    My friend John Miles who runs a great values driven organization Integritive allows his team to make up their own creative titles and runs under the name Chief of What’s Next. I had been considering changing my title to Chief Imaginaut for some time, and when I met John a few years ago and saw his title. I was inspired to immediately change mine. I like both titles since they inspire. They are titles that encompass the work you and personal you. Authentic to the whole person. And best of all, they don’t have to be attached to a company or job!

    Endless possibilities, indeed.

    Thank you Nilofer.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm  |  

      Have I ever really said thank YOU for that moment. Thank you, Glen. You are a role model.

      Reply
    • John Miles. August 25, 2011 at 2:15 am  |  

      Glen,

      Thanks for the mention and sharing a little of our mojo.

      BTW – we also have a technostalgist, chief manifestation officer, air traffic controller and visual ninja on staff too.

      Reply
      • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:34 am  |  

        LOVE this approach. Self-defined titles of passion and also value-add rather than a silo-focused role. Thanks for creating a set of possibilities for all of us.

        Reply
  6. Marita Roebkes. August 24, 2011 at 9:54 pm  |  

    Great post!

    Starting working in the US I asked my colleagues why biz titles were handled like old Austrian and British titles of nobility. Still wondering, but learned that a title on a profile or business card defines of being Non-ruling member of the Imperial family or in the circle of “Higher Nobility”

    I still have no title but love my job.

    Thanks
    Marita
    http://xeeme.com/maritar

    Reply
  7. John R. Sedivy. August 24, 2011 at 10:22 pm  |  

    At one point I recall reading that the U.S. was unique in that individuals introduce themselves to others by their title/professional role and in other parts of the world this isn’t necessarily the case. The author challenged readers to not discuss their titles/work role when first meeting someone. After all, you are more than your work.

    I have since kept this in mind. At first it was difficult, but over time it has become easier. Now I find it interesting how many people I meet start off with introducing themselves with a title and have little else to say. This is telling.

    Just be.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 24, 2011 at 10:59 pm  |  

      Just be. Yes, well, when we were in France last summer for 8 weeks, I noticed NO ONE asked this question. It’s worth considering how we could modify our culture.

      Reply
  8. Todd Lohenry. August 25, 2011 at 12:09 am  |  

    “God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” If the God of the Universe doesn’t need a title and can just say ‘I am’ I guess it’s good enough for me too! If Judeo-Christian tradition is not your thing, there’s always the great philosopher Popeye who said “No matter what ya calls me — I am what I am an’ tha’s ALL I yam!” :-)

    Thanks for the way you share your heart here! If I weren’t already your friend, your posts would make me want to be…

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 4:35 pm  |  

      Wait. We’re Friends? ;-))

      Reply
  9. Jeffrey Cufaude. August 25, 2011 at 1:23 am  |  

    I so appreciate this post. When I first attended TED in 2006, I was in the row directly behind Al Gore (who was speaking), and I knew the guy on my right was Pierre Omidyar because I had read a lot about eBay. I turned to introduce myself to the gentleman on my left who I knew nothing about and it was Reed Hastings of Netflix. I’ve always felt confident as a professional, but in that moment all my past successes faded away and I felt so incredibly small and out of place.

    Who we are is so different than what we do. Our lives are filled with verbs yet we try to encapsulate our identity in nouns. I write, I facilitate, I innovate, I speak, but I bristle if labeled alone as a facilitator, innovator, speaker or writer because they feel like limiting containers and reduce me to the mime inside the box from which I cannot escape.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:51 am  |  

      Verbs, not nouns. Yes. I wrote that in my book about how we need to think strategizing and not strategy.

      Hope we meet in person; we can feel small and out of place with each other. ;-)

      Reply
  10. Jamie Notter. August 25, 2011 at 2:15 am  |  

    Hmmm. This one has me thinking a lot. As I first read the post, I was thinking that maybe titles (and our propensity to identify ourselves by them) are tied into our machine world view. We like to know how we fit in the hierarchy. We are comforted by the simplicity of quick labels that tell everyone where we stand.

    But as I continue to think about it, I wonder if the title thing is a Yin to a Yang we haven’t articulated yet. To say I’m a Vice President puts me out there. It distinguishes me. It separates me from others. That’s why it feels mechanical, i guess. It comes from that power, separateness energy. And of course, it is incomplete. It doesn’t capture the more human element, the way we are connected to each other, or what I might share with you (love energy, as opposed to power energy). Maybe there’s a way we can introduce ourselves that captures both sides of the coin?

    Reply
  11. Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:40 am  |  

    Jeffrey and Jeff –

    You both have me reflecting on this at a deeper level so let me just think aloud here for a second with the promise that it’s “not right” but it’s not meant to be… it’s meant to be conversational.

    The journey:
    - First, we hope a title proves we CAN do something. (I think I can, I think I can).
    – Then we think or perhaps hope that our title makes us impressive to others, perhaps shows us and others we ARE something special. (I AM distinguished)
    – As we develop, we understand we are constrained by any particular title. (I do not want to fit in a box.)
    - When we can understand/identify to our own passions we can start to work from that flow. (There is no box. Or maybe, I define the box.)

    (and then to Jamie’s larger point about how language can separate or connect us, we need to find a way to accept ourselves where ever we are on the journey so we accept others on the journey and therefore can see one another as they are…)

    thoughts?

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Cufaude. August 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm  |  

      In my first nonprofit association job, our staff of four didn’t have formal titles initially other than the CEO by default. When we talked about it, I loved what he proposed:

      “Titles seem most important when you’re going to look for your next job. So what title will
      get you to that position and then let’s have you use that.”

      As Jamie noted, title can reflect how we see ourselves fitting into an existing order and/or how others see us doing so. That’s why I think some people get so attached to whether they are a director or a manager, etc.

      It comes back to identify: mine, yours, ours.

      Reply
  12. Chris Oestereich. August 25, 2011 at 2:43 am  |  

    Nilofer,
    I love this post! I’ll be sharing this with friends in job transitions as it will surely help with perspective. As to your question, I’d say I’m the outlook I have, the intents I bring, the efforts I make, and the outcomes I affect for the betterment of the world. If I’m making the needle move in the right direction on those things, you can call me whatever you like!
    Thank you,
    Chris

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:54 am  |  

      Love the attitude, bro.

      Reply
  13. marion chapsal. August 25, 2011 at 10:05 am  |  

    It is indeed a life’s work to answer that simple question “Who Are You?”, Nilofer.
    I really like the way you speak openly about our pathetic need to impress others with titles and “etiquettes”.

    I am not convinced French people are more tolerant about it, though.
    This could be a total new discussion and post. Business etiquettes across cultures and how you present yourself.

    In anglo-saxon cultures, it’s common to present yourself with your professional title and a quick pitch about what you do, what you sell.

    For French people, it’s much more insidious. It’s indirect and implicit. You may not be asked, in your face, who you are and what you do, but it would be immediately “decoded” by the way you dress, you speak, your accent, your signs of “distinction”, your taste in music, in books, etc… and eventually through the conversation with the education you received, the social class you belong to, the right people you may know, the elite circles of influence you may belong to. Or not.
    A wonderful book has been written about it. Pierre Bourdieu : “Distinction. A social critique of the judgement of taste”

    There is also another thread of discussion there, regarding women and the multiplicity of different ROLES.
    How do you define yourself, as a business woman, as a spouse, as a mom, etc…?

    All the hats we are wearing, all the time and how silly we would look if we had to put them alltogether on our head! Just imagine! (it reminds me of a fabulous children book I used to read to my children…Oh, I MUST find it and scan that picture!)

    The times in our life when we stop “working” and choose to go full time or half time into stay at home moms. Then you face the famous delicate question “and you, what do you do?”

    I loved reading your post as much as I enjoyed the brilliant comments there.

    A post to be shared with all of us in turbulent waters, in transition and in search of our selves.

    Identity, self-discovery, confidence, purpose…It’s all about becoming the hero or the heroine of your own Journey. The first day of the rest of your life starts NOW.
    It’s ours to invent it.
    Thanks, Nilofer.

    Reply
  14. June Marshall. August 25, 2011 at 2:22 pm  |  

    It was in France, at 18 years old that I was first exposed repeatedly and for the first time, to the idea that people wanted to know me for what books I read, what I thought about, what I was passionate about, and what I did for work never entered the conversation. That was a really formative experience, good and bad. Good because I learned to see people and my own culture in a different way, bad because it’s been constantly disappointing in all the years since that home in America, work defines you first and all else second or even not at all.
    But @Marion, I was 18 and naive. Little did I know they were sizing me up just in a different way! I wouldn’t trade the perception it gave me, even if it was wrong.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 2:24 pm  |  

      I agree. My books, clothes, travels, etc are actually MUCH more indicative of my passions than any title I’ve ever had.

      Reply
  15. Parissa Behnia. August 25, 2011 at 2:30 pm  |  

    What a lovely, powerful and empowering post. In a period of two years, I was laid off two times and it rocked me to my core. Because one makes lemonade out of lemons, this experience has permanently changed my view of who I am, what I “do” and how I want to help others. My new journey is my own advisory firm that I run with my muse/business partner. I can tell that some people don’t treat me as seriously as others do and it’s exactly because of this “title” and “cache” thing that you beautifully described in your post. Thank you for having the courage to talk about it.

    Reply
  16. Leslie Forman. August 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm  |  

    Great post. And great question. I’m a California native currently living in Chile, by way of China. Almost every day here people say some version of this: “Pero no entiendo, que es tu profesion?” Am I a lawyer, an engineer, a writer, a …? I usually say I’m a translator, since I translate technical descriptions of solar power technology into childlike gestures, and English into Spanish and sometimes Chinese. I guess interpreter is actually more accurate than translator, since I talk more than I write, and I add my own interpretations as I go along, but yes: it’s complicated.

    Thanks for reminding me that this question doesn’t go away, even if you have some big organization’s name to put on your nametag.

    Reply
  17. Leslie Forman. August 25, 2011 at 2:43 pm  |  

    One more thing. I heart Nancy Duarte and Resonate! Seriously, one of my favorite books. She said that as an entrepreneur no one ever denied her a seat at the table, and she never really saw a glass ceiling, but as an author, it has been much harder to gain credibility. Apparently “serious business books” are written by men. Go figure. I wish you much success with your book launch!!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 25, 2011 at 4:40 pm  |  

      I find it funny that Nancy says that. She has 2 (count ‘em: 2) best sellers. She is in the TED book Club. She knows Al Gore. There’s a business book group in the valley here which she is invited to (and I’m not, even though I have a very “serious business book” and am regarded in that light.) She’s won the Women of Influence award in Silicon Valley– an award Carol Bartz and others like that have won. How much more serious can she be considered?

      Maybe the parallel of this feeling on serious book stuff is to help the next set of authors that are less well known. It would be the equivalent of “when you feel helpless, help someone” (good video here: http://amyking.wordpress.com/2008/05/12/when-you-feel-helpless-help-someone-aung-san-suu-kyi/) Sometimes we have to see what we have, and realize we’re all good.

      (and I’m being direct in this feedback because I heart Nancy also. Which is when her first book came out I bought 10 copies and hand sent them to people who could adopt it institutionally — which many did. Nancy has quiet supporters everywhere.)

      Reply
  18. Anna Watt. August 25, 2011 at 3:40 pm  |  

    Fabulous article – thanks Nilofer.

    Having traded my corporate career for a low-key admin job some 6 years ago whilst I found out ‘what I wanted to do’, I found my ego kicking in big time whilst having to admit I had left my much better paid role where I was at least in some ways acknowledged for my skills, for a relatively low paid admin role (even though doing that gave me breathing space, and a stress free job/time in which to focus on other things in my life like getting pregnant and having a child). Going through this process has forced me to develop a much stronger sense of my own worth and value, rather than looking for external validation through pay and job titles.

    Ironically, having now ditched that job I am now trying to find a label to describe what I do so that other people can understand what I bring to the table, aside from everything else I might do in my life, but I’m feeling uplifted by the validation (ironic isn’t it) that I could just make my own job title up (and I’ve just created an profile on zerply which being quite free/open/creative allowed me to open up to that idea too)

    PS in the UK, it is fairly standard for the second question to be asked of you, after your name, is ‘and what do you do?’ – not quite the same question as ‘who are you’ but the aim is the same i.e. identify where others fit in relation to you in the hierarchy, at least financially.

    Reply
  19. Michele Price. August 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm  |  

    Loving it! Yes, titles can get in the way and being originally form the Holistic world language and labels have been a fascination for a while.

    Being intentional seems to be a skill that Americans will want to put into practice more often.

    When people introduce I also notice if they say things like…

    I am ____(Name)

    No you are not your name.

    My Name is Michele, I am a deep and curious thinker who loves to see who you are and how we can learn to enjoy this moment together.

    Does this mean I need to move to France? chuckle

    Reply
  20. Barbara Hill. August 25, 2011 at 7:30 pm  |  

    I have walked many paths in my career, some were in professions some were ‘just jobs.’ I had to give up my last position to look after my ailing husband. Here’s the weird thing: There is no title for what I do.. oh there’s “caregiver” but it sounds clinical. I’ve been busier and more appreciated than I ever did at any job, and that includes all those unpaid overtime hours that I used to feel just went with the title. I’ve decided that the french word for caregiver — “Prepose” (praypozay) sounds so much better that I’ve put it on name tags. Unless I’m at a meeting in Paris, I can fool almost anyone. We are more than our titles. “What do you do?” has been the first question asked since the 80s. There’s still no really good answer.

    Reply
  21. T. Thorn Coyle. August 25, 2011 at 7:35 pm  |  

    Beautifully written! Thank you.

    I do an exercise sometimes which I call “Cutting to the Core” in which I /we peel off our titles, job descriptions, nicknames, affiliations, and masks in order to uncover what shines, moves, sings, or rests in stillness underneath it all. Our essence.

    When we move from the inside out, rather than the outside in, we can be so much more than we – or our culture – thinks.

    Reply
    • T Thorn Coyle. August 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm  |  

      Nilofer, I came across this bell hooks quote this morning and it brought to mind the discussion here at your blog:

      “If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn’t start with race; I wouldn’t start with blackness; I wouldn’t start with gender; I wouldn’t start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I’m a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.” – bell hooks

      The questions people are asking about ‘what are you passionate about’ seem included in her definition of being on the path of love.

      Thanks for getting us thinking.

      Reply
  22. Todd Gorman. August 26, 2011 at 4:53 am  |  

    Nilofer, thank you for the inspiration and stimulation here and in your last post, both richly informed by your experience.

    To refer to a couple of the above comments, the French have a stock phrase “culture generale.” The closest American analogue would be a “well-rounded education.” Marion and June show its application can be more global than just taking a variety of subjects in school. Our character is shaped and our minds are informed by the books we’ve read, the places we’ve been — and those we haven’t.

    [St. Augustine: The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.]

    In true “you’re having twins” spirit, I’d like to separate a couple of ideas that got blended together:

    1) An indictment of superficiality, which I think we all can agree on. (Superficial people exist; they’re just not your readers!)

    2) Denying reality. It is human to rely on categories to help us understand people and the world.

    The concept of thin-slicing, first articulated by Ambady and Rosenthal in 1992 and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, states that accurate judgments can be made in just a few minutes or on the basis of not very much information (and more information doesn’t necessarily improve the accuracy). With time as our most valuable resource in life, anything we can do to maximize our efficiency is desirable. The process of sorting and sizing people is something we all do. You yourself have acknowledged your low tolerance for BS, and share evidence when you encounter it from time to time ;-)

    Subpoint: People are uneasy when they can’t make sense of you. (That’s what happened, and was ameliorated, at the party.) People don’t want to engage or collaborate when they feel uneasy. When people have a label, what they have is a degree of clarity, which isn’t all bad. I know from personal experience that people are uneasy around me sometimes ’cause they haven’t quite got me figured out.

    Glen pointed out that as more of our interactions are not in person, defining ourselves online (=connecting to those categories) becomes ever more important, but conversely, should you choose to share personal things, that social media can reveal more than a person’s business identity, rather, we can get a glimpse of the whole person. That ties in with the “culture generale” concept above: what books are you reading? Where did you just check in? Who are you having coffee with?

    3)Labels have power. They can affect our own behavior and can change how others respond to us.

    This isn’t all bad. I’m with Curt on “Let’s acknowledge that there is an upside and a down side here, use labels constructively, and minimize the negative consequences.”

    Now, on seeing past labels, I agree wholeheatedly that it is inadequate to sum up a human with a title. Studs Terkel, who spent a life making observations of his own akin to yours, wrote “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”

    Under this point of labeling, I don’t know what the Hell I would put on a name tag at a TED conference. I’ve never fit easily into anybody’s boxes. When I read in your comment above, “There is no box,” it was riveting. I thought: This is genius! What a powerful paradigm shift.

    Regarding the self-defined box, I found the best identity check is walking down the street in a big city, particularly New York. When faced with the homeless needing handouts, the slick businessmen in suits, exuding status, the hip-hop crowd in oversized clothes with oversized branding, all walks of life intermingling cheek by jowl on the streets, it really made me ponder who I am, clarifying the roles and the values.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 26, 2011 at 5:43 pm  |  

      Todd, there is so much depth in this your post that I can’t possibly add to it other than to say, thanks for the observations.

      Reply
  23. Glen Morris. August 26, 2011 at 9:08 am  |  

    I really appreciate the way you have put this together. I have been in this situation more than I care to remember in this past year. It is so refreshing to look from this point of view. I will be seeing how this feels next opportunity. Thank Glen

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 26, 2011 at 5:42 pm  |  

      Take heart in that you are not alone.

      Reply
  24. George Barckley. August 26, 2011 at 1:42 pm  |  

    Great article “Blogger”, “Author”, “Writer Extraordinaire”…

    Our greeting titles are actually a replacement to an old defense mechanism. We nolonger have to size up our carnivorous neighbors and determine if we need to run away or stay to eat.

    Because we are natural competitors of survival I need to know if you can “kill me” or “i can kill you” professionally speaking. So we need to size each other up. Titles do just that.

    We’ve been doing this since man learned how to write. We know that Abraham was a sheep herder, Jesus was a Carpenter and Paul was a tax collector. Titles are the best thing we have to quickly size each other up.

    Becoming civilized has yet to change some of our natural instincts.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. August 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm  |  

      Great point. This is historical. I called it Paleolithic in this post on Normalcy (http://nilofermerchant.com/2011/08/17/normalcy-is-a-unicorn/). Which was the first time since watching Friends, the show, I was able to use that word in any occasion.

      I thought Glen’s take was interesting in that he self-identifies however he needs to which is his owning his passions. How other people categorize us is some what outside our controls.

      Thanks for contributing.

      Reply
  25. Kneale Mann. October 4, 2011 at 7:45 pm  |  

    Nilofer,

    Thank-you for your brave words. We spend our childhood not worrying about titles and the rest of our lives trying to fit in. We put ourselves in a box because we feel others can digest things in a box. We begin to pay closer attention to the nagging feeling we want more purpose and people around us react in strange ways.

    Some admire our freedom and guts, others become unsure of how to define us. And despite being smart or talented or experience, we are human and we have an inherent need to belong. This can often cause imbalance because it manifests in arrogance or self-doubt and all the while we suffer in silence with a broad smile on our visage.

    Thank-you for this, your timing is impeccable as always.

    Reply
  26. Wes. November 2, 2011 at 4:00 am  |  

    Thank you. I identify with this a lot. Everybody could benefit from this, even those with titles, to show more grace to people like us.

    Reply
  27. Sushank Saha. February 23, 2012 at 6:29 am  |  

    I like to think of titles as being a very functional aspect of what one does i.e. ones profession. They not only confer a title onto the wearers head but also serves to define the duties and responsibilities of the wearer of the title. The “role” is always bounding the “person” although it is clear that the boundaries of the role are fluid and free to expand.

    With regards to that one comment about VPs not using titles, i believe that there are distinct principles applicable to this – (i) Often times, people with distinct names do not feel the need to use their title and (ii) Per my thoughts expressed intially in this comment, titles are used best when they are used in a functional capacity to achieve something; Like an arrow that once shot seeks to find its aim.

    Psychology is an important part of this discussion and hence bound to differ from one to another. It reminds me of this experiment done at Harvard or berkley with prison guards. If one goes by the conclusions apparent from the above mentioned research, then there is a far stronger link between the tile one wears and the identity that one decides to wear.

    Reply
  28. GM. June 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm  |  

    All in all is all we are … –Kurt Cobain

    Reply
  29. Vanessa Fox (@vanessafox). August 25, 2013 at 12:55 pm  |  

    I just had this conversation with some tech folks the other day! I was at a small roundtable discussing tech issues with a US senator. We all had to introduce ourselves and briefly describe what we did. Those intros provided a foundation for the discussion and, I suppose, gave our opinions credibility.

    Before the roundtable started, I asked a few of the entrepreneurs there how they tended to introduce themselves (at parties or whatever). They said things like “technologist” or “writer”, but those descriptors don’t really mean anything, particularly about the actual subject matter one is interested in. On the other hand, the alternative is obnoxious: “I’m a writer and a speaker about X and an entrepreneur who created Y and I’m on the board of Z university and I teach A and advise startups on B…” Ugh.

    As a woman, I feel as though I have an extra hurdle here. For instance, I regularly attend a friendly poker game with a rotating tech guest list. I’m always the only woman. I have so often been mistaken in these types of scenarios for someone’s wife or girlfriend that I feel doubly motivated to establish my credentials. I have no idea what the answer is.

    Reply
  30. Soydanbay. September 2, 2013 at 5:55 am  |  

    James Hillman (R.I.P), a legendary psychologist, once said:

    “Tell me what you year for, and I will tell you who you are.”

    He then added:

    “Instead we ask people ‘What do you do?’ “

    Reply
  31. timwkrause. January 15, 2014 at 11:36 am  |  

    Hi Nilofer,
    Call me late-to-the-party but this post from 3 years ago resonates deeply with me today.

    Last summer I gave up the last of my official titles to start a new business.
    This winter my daughter (9 years old), who has only known me as working long hours away from home, introduced me as unemployed.
    I cringed.
    That was the last title I wanted.

    (She and I later had a lovely chat about the minor differences between unemployed and self-employed.)

    Your post reminded me again: my life is not about how I introduce myself. My life is about

    - who I am
    - who I impact
    - how I impact
    - who impacts me
    - how I receive their impact

    I am learning to appreciate my lack of title. It is allowing me to open the narrow box on who I thought I was. It is creating new space for self-discovery. And in the process it is creating new opportunity for impact: both in myself and others.

    I’ve decided there will be no titles in our new business…….too restricting.

    Thanks for who you are and the impact you have on me.
    Best of 2014 to you and yours.
    Cheers,
    Tim

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. January 15, 2014 at 11:54 am  |  

      I still cringe everytime I have to fill out a conference registration — but only recently… I’ve started making things up. Zoo Keeper. Ball Juggler. Or I default to Author. The main thing is that you’re now in a working group that represents a vast majority of workers and is clearly going to grow. Enjoy this.

      Reply

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