25 May 2013
I stood there, 18-inches away from Mark Rothko’s work. At 12 years old, I allowed myself to be completely absorbed by it. I allowed it to speak to me—to tell me its story. Like many of Rothko’s paintings, this piece was named “Untitled” so I had no guidance as to what to think or feel as I experienced the painting. I understood it in a way only I could because I brought my own history and my own expectations to the piece. I saw in the painting what I needed to see.
A few years ago, I was in the process of designing new business cards. I decided that I would include my name, my title, my email address, and my Twitter handle. I started to layout the information and realized that I didn’t know what to put as my title. At the time, I was working as a professor at the university level, so I could have put “Professor.” But it seemed limiting—I was doing so much more than just teaching. I was writing, speaking, designing, and more. I struggled with finding a title that would capture who I was and what I did. So I designed my business cards without a title.
In our industry, we see a lot of titles like “Rockstar” or “Ninja.” Heck, I’ve even used the title “Maker of Awesomeness.” Although, some people might actually think they are rock stars, I’m not sure all who wear this label truly believe they are. We are at a time and place in our industry where most of us do a lot of different things. We serve in many different roles. Our roles, like the fields of color in Rothko’s painting have bled together. They now overlap. They have created new shapes. Job titles that once explained our neatly contained roles, no longer do because our roles are no longer neatly contained. It’s no wonder we turn to titles like Rockstar, Ninja, and Maker of Awesomeness. We don’t know how to describe our roles because our responsibilities are so varied.
Designers develop and Developers design. Most everyone is expected to write some sort of copy, but are all of us Writers? How do we encapsulate the vast diversity that each of us do in a title? How do we say “jack of all trades” on a business card without saying “jack of all trades?”
In our industry, we don’t yet have the language that supports the change from specialist and compartmentalist to generalist that has occurred. A specialist is a someone who has more expertise in one area over others. A compartmentalist is someone who has equal expertise in only one area. A generalist is someone who has equal expertise in most areas.
Most hiring companies can’t afford specialists, desire generalists, and will die with compartmentalists. It’s very challenging for teams to function when they are built with specialists and compartmentalists because only specific people can perform specific tasks. This becomes a problem when a team member gets sick, goes on vacation, or leaves the team altogether.
The team is left asking: Who takes on their tasks?
When life events such as these occur, projects get bottlenecked. Sometimes projects completely stall or fail. Also, in a work environment with specialists and compartmentalists, during the lifecycle of a project there are often times when some members of the team sit idle while other team members are pulling intense hours. However, when a team is made of generalists, bottlenecking is less likely to happen because team members are able to perform any and all of the tasks needed to get a project done. Hiring companies need generalists not to survive, but to thrive.
Although it’s easy to create a job title for a specialist or compartmentalist because either type of person really only holds one role at one time, generalists are who companies need. On the other hand, it’s challenging to create a job title for a generalist because they hold many roles at one time. With hiring companies moving towards hiring generalists, it’s easier to find a job as a generalist but more difficult to find a job title.
Until we have the language that supports the change from specialist and compartmentalist to generalist, maybe we go “Untitled.” Maybe, like Rothko’s paintings, we embrace the changing shape of our fields. Maybe we allow them to bleed and to blend. Maybe we allow them to take the shape they need to take in order to create the masterpieces held within our industry.
“Untitled.” What if we allow ourselves to be seen by other people in ways similar to Rothko’s paintings? When people get close to us and engage with us, they bring their own history and expectations to us. They see in us what they need to see. We are to them, what they need us to be. Since we are generalists, we are able to live authentic untitled careers. Careers that allow us to be what each person we engage with need us to be. Careers that allow us to be who we need ourselves to be.
Leslie Jensen-Inman, Untitled.