What to do about “What do YOU do”
While I was preparing to write this, I reread this fantastic entry from Anthem Salgado about the burden of being a “Jack of all trades.” I identify with the issue of being a Jack (or Jill in this case) of many trades. It got me thinking about just how many titles I can throw after my name: yoga teacher / writer / performer / actor / marketing and communications executive and strategist / entrepreneur / filmmaker / event planner. It got me thinking about my evolution as a professional and an artist. It got me thinking about how long it took me to embrace not only how to describe myself, but how to take pleasure in doing so.
When I was looking for a job about 8 years ago (to leave what was ultimately a dead-end position for me) I got a bit resentful that my skills weren’t more, well, SINGULAR. Honed. Specific. Most of my colleagues in the professional world (vs. the creative one) are specialists in one thing or another. They can make statements like “I am a career sales executive” or “I am a software engineer.” Going through the want ads or figuring out how to market myself, at the time, was this daunting, thankless, shame-inducing thing for someone with a varied and (at least I felt) absurdly eclectic background. I shamed myself for not having a practical degree (hi, Theater, USC, class of ’92), professional pedigree of some kind. I even considered going back to grad school for an MBA.
The Old “WDYD” Query
There were moments in my 30s when I was tempted to condense my skill set into one sort of “mega” skill, something ordained by a university that people could easily digest, something that boiled down to a single description that said all it needed to with one word. Something that was a simple and easy response to this: “What do you do?” Yep, the old “WDYD” query. Here’s the thing: if you’d asked me that question in 2005, I could have answered, honestly, that I was a marketing executive, a freelance writer, a yoga teacher and a solo performer. This was all stuff I was getting PAID to do. No one wants that as an answer, I’d say to myself. When someone asked me the “WDYD” question, I’d fumble and answer with enough self-deprecation to be worthy of a Woody Allen character (I’m specifically thinking of Dianne Wiest’s Holly in his amazing “Hannah and Her Sisters” but anyway…).
It’s certainly true that a lot of people want something digestible to the “WDYD” question so they know how to categorize you when they first meet you. That’s why they ask in the first place. It’s also polite, acceptable small talk. It certainly beats “Who did you vote for in the last election” or “So, what are your feelings about Jesus?” People aren’t just asking this question so they can size you up; they’re asking it because it’s something we’re sort of trained to do in our culture. Regardless of that, I hated answering it so much, after a couple of decades of acting like a pubescent suburbanite when I answered it (“Um, I’m like this artist, but I also have this job as a marketing…oh, whatever, what do you do?”) I’d developed a complex about it. This is to say nothing about my agony over writing cover letters and updating my resume which made me alternately depressed, apoplectic, self-pitying and then paralyzed with fear. To put it simply: I felt lousy for not having a simple way to describe myself.
Eclectic backgrounds make for interesting people
As usual, age brings perspective (for anyone under 25 reading this: I promise and assure you that this really is true and a mostly fair trade for the shittier aspects of aging). As I got older, I realized that eclectic backgrounds make for interesting people, and also extremely valuable ones. For example: my dear friend and colleague, is not only one of the most brilliant marketing strategists I know, but is also an ordained minister and spiritual teacher. I also started to realize that most of the people that I admired were “renaissance” people of sorts: men and women who were adaptable and accomplished in more than one field. One of my favorite artists, for example, has always been Ruben Blades. His resume as an actor alone is impressive, but look at his other accomplishments: prolific and skilled musician, lawyer (I remember reading in the 1980s that he had not one but two law degrees), politician, painter and activist. So, if I admired Senior Blades so much, why was I so ashamed of my own eclecticism?
I did get another job — as the senior level customer experience executive for another start up — but my insecurities followed. For years. In fact, it wasn’t until I was asked to perform in a solo performance series in San Francisco (mind you, I’d been performing as a solo artist for a decade at the time) that I felt a shift. I was talking to a client (at said job) on the phone before I was getting ready to depart for the Bay Area for a three-week development workshop for my script in 2008, and it came up that I was going out of town. He naturally asked why, and I as discreetly as I could said I’d be working remotely while I was workshopping a play that I’d been commissioned to write from a theatre in San Francisco.
“It sounds like,” he said, “that you lead a very exciting life.”
Never mind that these were words echoed by many people in my life for years (including my endlessly supportive father), but it took the observation of someone whom I’d never met in person to give me some perspective. I DID lead an exciting life, or at least an interesting one. These were choices that I was lucky enough to be able to make, vocations I was blessed enough to explore. I have (and I’m pretty sure that I have my parents to thank for this) proclivities to set goals and reach them, and I tend to feel listless if I’m not working on something new most of the time.
Being a self-sufficient artist
So, how does this all tie into being an entrepreneur? What does this have to do with being a self-sufficient artist?
Running your own business necessitates that you do thousands of different things and take on multitudes of different tasks. In my current role as co-founder and owner of a solar company, I know that for at least two years, there are dozens of roles that I have to fill until we’re at a point where we can afford to hire someone else to do it. I am the company’s bookkeeper, sales manager, communications strategist, copywriter, project manager, business development executive, and primary sales originator. I can’t imagine taking all that on if the only job I’d had in the past asked that I use a single skill set day after day.
America is a place where we are defined by what we do. It also seems on the surface like a culture that favors those who learn a trade early on and with time become more respected and successful experts in that single trade. This is a myth, of course. This does happen, but not for most people. However, like all cultural mythology, this one haunted me. It took me until middle age to shed myself of it and learn to embrace what makes me unique, special, and maybe most importantly, employable.
To all other professionals with multiple hyphenates on your resumes
After taking an inventory of my community of friends and colleagues, I also realized that I am surrounded by people who are multi-disciplinary as I am. Is this true for you? If you’re an artist, it probably is. If you’ve got an arts background and have a day job, it undoubtedly is. Try this as an exercise: write down the people that you admire in your life. They don’t have to be people that you know — famous people count, too, for this. List the qualities that you admire about them and the accomplishments that you respect.
Just look at the background of someone like, say, Richard Branson (someone who could pay for my whole life, mortgage included, with cash if he wanted to). He started his life as a music executive at 16 by publishing a music magazine from the basement of his church. Would you have ever thought that a music magnet would eventually run one of the world’s most successful airline conglomerates? Would you think that he would be trying to send people into OUTER SPACE? He probably didn’t either. I’m guessing that when Mr. Branson is at dinner parties and when the one person in the room who doesn’t recognize him asks him the “WDYD” question, he probably just says this: “I’m a businessman.”
Of course, I’m still asked “WDYD” all the time. For a while, I rebelled, and proudly listed off every single damn thing that I do; and then I started empathizing with people whose eyes glazed over while I was still answering the question. As Mr. Salgado mentions in the blog cited above, “The next time you’re at some social function and someone asks, What do you do?, enjoy the refreshing lightness and confidence that comes with knowing exactly how you will respond.” How do I respond now? I say, flooded with confidence, “I am an entrepreneur and an artist.” I’m then putting the burden back on the person who asked the question to dig into whatever side of my spectrum that he or she can relate to more. I’m actually EMPOWERING the conversation. “Tell me about your business;” “Are you a painter or what kind of art do you do?”; “Wow, how do you have time for both?”
Now, instead of a barrier, the answer to “WDYD” is a bridge to other people, other professionals and—here’s the kicker—someone who might hire me to do something later. So, to all other professionals with multiple hyphenates on your resumes I have only this to say: Welcome to your exciting life. I’m glad to count you among us.
Does this post spark ah-ha moments, questions, or appreciation? What are your thoughts on having one vs. many job titles? We’d love to hear your thoughts and your own realizations in the comments section. Got anyone who’d like to read this story? Please pass it along using the buttons below. Thank you! ~Anthem