This holiday season, I’m spending a good deal of time with my extended family – you know the people you only see two times a year at Thanksgiving and Christmas and the occasional wedding. Since we do not share tight connections, they always ask the inevitable question: “What are you up to these days?” This is especially painful if you have recently been fired, let go, quit your job on a whim or are starting your own business. Unless you come from a family of entrepreneurs, quitting your job and starting your own business will not make sense to any other family member. For all other circumstances referenced above, prepare to be pitied.
Tell your family you are writing blogs and building an online wellness community and they’ll nod their head with a kind smirk, say something to the effect of “Oh…,” ask no further questions because they honestly don’t know what to say and then leave the vicinity to talk to someone else who they can have a normal conversation with. When they go home, they may have a conversation with their significant other and children, asking if anyone could figure out what it is you do. They might have a good laugh at your expense. And then they’ll forget all about you, happy that they don’t have to talk to you again for another year because, honestly, you scare them.
Our society runs on titles. You’re the president. Ok. Do most people even know what the President really does on a day-to-day basis? Maybe. But what about the president of a company? Does anyone know what a president of a company does on a day-to-day basis? It’s not like it’s the same everywhere. Every president does something a little different because each company has a different need. But at the end of the day, the president works for the company, and everyone can understand.
Maybe it’s a responsibility issue. People get all cringy around responsibilities other people have to assume. If you have to shoulder the burden of your own company, people will start to say things like, “Are you sure you want to do that? You know, 50% of companies fail within the first year and of the 50% that survive, another 50% of those fail within the next 5 years. So, are you sure you want to be a failure? Besides who would ever want to start their own company? Just find one that already exists and get a nice secure job and a steady paycheck. Then we don’t have to worry about you.”
It’s not that they are even all that worried about your success or (inevitable) failure. It could be they are more worried about you stirring up trouble. Why did you always have to be the funny kid that couldn’t follow the rules? Starting your own company is like breaking the unspoken family rules. It’s disruptive to the way things are as the family knows it.
People need titles, organizations and legal structures to understand what you do, despite the fact they might not understand the details. The title has to fit within the realm of an established industry (and new industries don’t just pop up overnight). You have to prove that lots of people have made a lot of money doing the exact same thing as you and maybe then they’ll say “Well, that person was lucky.”
At the end of the day, your family and friends most likely do want to help you. They do want to see you succeed. But they don’t know how to relate to you because they don’t know how to talk to you or what to talk about. They don’t know how to help you because they can’t tell the next person succinctly and with confidence why whatever it is that you are doing will help them immensely.
We need titles and industries because that’s how the business world works. It creates hierarchy and a chain of command. It creates boundaries and defines work flow. It even goes so far as to transmute stigma from title bestower to title holder. Titles and hierarchies can be helpful and certainly help organize. They are a function of language that help us understand quickly what we are dealing with. It helps shape human interaction, proper etiquette, correct speech and establishes power and authority. Without it, we would be living in a utopic, borderline uncivilized world, most likely not even functioning.
There is nothing wrong with titles. There is something wrong when you don’t have one. To everybody else, that is.
If you have an obscure title, or none at all, it’s time to find one. Make one up. Be honest. It’s best to take your future into your own hands and tell people what it is you do before they create a title for you. Heaven forbid someone misunderstands.
Entrepreneurs are by nature disruptors. (By the way, avoid choosing “Entrepreneur” as your title if you don’t want that questioning look from loved ones.) There are a few responsibilities though: 1) creativity 2) flexibility. You’re going to have to be both when you come up with your new title.
It’s a good exercise to give yourself a title. To explain what it is you do. To write your own job description. Know that you’ll have to get creative and be flexbile. Know that you’ll have to break it down into the corporate lexicon or the language that your clients and customers and family and friends speak. And know that it’s not set in stone. As your vision and company morphs and changes, your title will change as well. Consider it your own promotion. Your own journey up the ladder.
We all have to start somewhere. Unless you know how to defy the laws of gravity, your journey starts from the bottom.
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