Working as a creative, I have a hard time explaining what I do when the omnipresent “what do you do for work?” comes up in conversation. Part of the issue is that the labels we have to categorize vocations are outdated and their realities have changed since they were first coined. The other part is that the different lines of work are increasingly overlapping and it is nearly impossible to successfully categorize oneself any single one of them. It is not, however, the labels that need to be updated to accommodate the change, but our framing of the concept of work as a whole.
Globally, as automation and the availability of technologies simplifies, reduces and dismisses tasks that can be performed by a machine, the role of human labor is shifting. As we move away from manual tasks, “fortune will instead favor […] those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.” (Foreign Aff.)
Job postings typically focus on tasks and inputs, though employers’ expectations are increasingly focused around the outputs and what contribution the employee can have towards the success of the project, company or organization as a whole. In the realm of freelance work, fewer clients seek technical solutions (e.g. someone to build a website), as they are looking for someone who can invest into their business (e.g. someone who can help them grow their business online). As such, it is equally as hard for a business to hire a “good” web designer, as it is for a freelancer to sell oneself as merely a web designer.
Those who find themselves in this awkward place of overlapping disciplines are, I think, actually in a very good place to be. Not only you have a unique value proposition, but you are also in a position to explore uncharted territories and come up with solutions that are significantly better. You are in a unique place to make a big contribution and a big difference, be it for your employer, your client or your own project.
How can we make this big contribution? I don’t expect there to be an answer. There is no set course, no recipe book — no label. It sounds awful and futile, but I think overcoming this discomfort is key. By nature, we dislike uncertainty and questions that don’t have answers. We want a label, a label to put on a person, so we can safely put her away on her respective shelf, among the dusty preconceptions and prejudice. We need to resist the temptation, both as an employer and an employee.
But, what do you do for work? I will still have to answer the question, but I will try to not think about what I know how to do, but what I can do for this person, this company, this world. I help companies grow their business, I am passionate about creating things, I believe technology can help people reach their full potential, and so on. If you are talking to a potential client, how can you help them grow their business? To someone in a related field, how can you collaborate? To a friend, where do your common interests lie?
Let’s think about the value and ideas we can bring and not have labels dictate what we chose to do. Do what you want to do, not what your business card or diploma says you should. It’s scary to follow your gut, to do what you want to do, to dive into unusual overlaps and uncharted territory, but it’s simply not worth doing otherwise.