Filling in the occupational blanks

Following up on an interview, a journalist asked:

If I were to say that you freelance as [blank] consultant, what would be the word that fills that blank?

2015-01-14 Filling in the occupational blanks -- index card #experiment #occupation

2015-01-14 Filling in the occupational blanks – index card #experiment #occupation

Tricky question. “Freelance” is definitely the wrong word for it, since I doubt I’ll be taking on any more clients and the word obscures my current fascination with a self-directed life. It might make sense to use the word “independent” if we really need to contrast this with stable employment.

Technically, I spend a fraction of my time consulting, and I can define the kind of consulting that I do in a compact phrase. But based on my 2014 numbers, that’s only 12% of my time. This is much less than the 37% of the time I spend sleeping, or even the 18% of the time I spend on discretionary projects or the 15% of the time I spend taking care of myself (not including the 7% of the time I spend on chores, errands, and other things).

Since no one gets introduced as a sleeper even though that’s what we mostly do with our lives, maybe my discretionary projects will yield a neat occupational description for people who need to have that introductory phrase.

  • Am I a writer (3%)? (“Author” is a smidge more self-directed and respectable, maybe, but I still don’t feel like I’ve written Real Books since all my resources are compilations of blog posts). A blogger? This is a category so large, it could mean anything.
  • A sketchnoter (3%)? Alternatively: a sketchnote artist or a doodler, depending on whether I’m making it sound more respectable or more approachable. But the popular understanding of sketchnotes (if there is one) is that of recording other people’s thoughts, and I’m focusing on exploring my own questions.
  • An Emacs geek (2%)? Too obscure; it doesn’t provide useful information for most people. Maybe an open source developer, which also includes the 1% of the time I spend coding – but I do more writing about software than writing actual software or contributing to projects. An open source advocate? But I don’t push it on people or try to change people’s minds.

In the rare meetups I go to, I usually mention a bunch of my interests (drawing, writing, coding, experimenting), and people pick whatever they’re curious about. But most times, I try to preempt the “What do you do?” question with something more interesting for me, like what people are learning about or interested in. It’s so much easier when someone recognizes me from my blog, because then we can jump straight to the interests we have in common.

From time to time, I come across people who persistently ask, “But what do you do? What’s your day job?” I confess it’s a bit fun to tweak the box they want to put me in. One approach I’ve heard other people use is to playfully acknowledge the difficulty of categorization. “On Mondays, I _. On Tuesdays, I _. On Wednesdays, I___. …” Others gleefully embrace descriptions like “I’m unemployed.”

But I’m missing the purpose of that introductory phrase or that short bio here. It’s not about shaking up the other person’s worldview. At its best, that occupational association helps the listener or reader quickly grasp an idea of the other person’s life and where the other person is coming from. An accountant probably has a different way of looking at things than a primary school teacher does. One’s occupation provides the other person with the ability to contextualize what one says (“Oh, of course she thinks of things as systems and processes; she works with code all day.”). During small talk, it gives people easy things to talk about while they’re waiting for a more interesting topic of conversation to appear: “What kinds of things do you write?”

Let’s say, then, that my goals for this phrase would be:

  • to help people understand my context quickly, and how that might differ from their perspective
  • to make the other person more comfortable by:
    • being able to associate me with a stereotype that adds information, possibly fleshing out this mental profile with differences later on
    • in conversation, letting them easily think of questions to ask, addressing the phatic nature of small talk (we’re not actually talking, we’re making polite noises)
  • to branch off into more interesting conversations, avoiding the dead-end that often comes up after the ritualistic exchange of “What do you do?”

Of these goals, I like the third (interesting conversations) the most.

Here are a few of my options:

  • I can accept convention and pick one aspect of what I do, especially if I tailor it to their interests. For example, at a business event, I might introduce myself as a social business consultant who helps really large companies improve internal collaboration through analytics and custom development for enterprise social network platforms (well, isn’t that a mouthful). At visual thinking events, I might introduce myself as a sketchnoter focusing on exploring my own ideas.
  • I can waffle by introducing several aspects, still within the vocabulary of regular occupations: a consultant and a writer, for example.
  • I can say, “It’s complicated!” and explain my 5-year experiment, self-directed living, and learning/coding/writing/drawing/sharing.

Anyway, circling back to this writer and his likely use of some kind of occupation as a way to introduce and contextualize me:

  • It might be interesting to play with no occupational categorization. Some context may be provided by age (31) – it’s common enough in newspapers and books. The editor might send it back with a question, “Yes, but what does she do?”, but there it is.
  • It might also be interesting to play with my difficulty of categorization. “Sacha Chua, who couldn’t come up with a single phrase to describe her occupation, …”
  • Or, since it’s no skin off my back if this is not fully representative, I could just let him write whatever he wants to write. Freelance consultant. Blogger. Sketchnoter. Amateur experimenter. Independent developer. “Consultant” is a very small part of my identity, actually, so developer or blogger might be interesting. A possible missed opportunity here is that the wrong frame might result in people not being able to identify with and learn from stuff (“Of course she can deal with this, she’s a coder”; “Bah, another blogger, is that all she does?”; “Why should I listen to her? Freelance is just a fancy word for unemployed.”). But it’ll do under time pressure. =)

I’m writing this on January 14 and posting this in the future (because I limit posts to one a day), so the article will likely be out by now. If I remember, I’ll update this with what he actually used. =) But I needed to think about it out loud, and I’m sure the situation will come up again in the future. Perhaps by then I’ll have a more compact way to describe myself.

Since other people have figured this out before, I can learn from them. (And possibly from you!) After all, I’m nowhere near as interesting as Benjamin Franklin or Leonardo da Vinci, and somehow they managed to settle down into a sequence of nouns. Here’s the one from Wikipedia’s entry for Leonardo da Vinci:

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (15 April 1452 – 2 May 1519) was an Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer.

Three or four nouns should be a good thing for me to strive for, eh? Even one or two nouns, if I can get to some level of distinction.

As for introductions – people can pick whatever aspect they want. I am multi-faceted and growing. =)

  • Contraction and expansion are the dualities that govern our reality. You revolt at the notion of a singular definition of that which you do, with one word, because that is contraction. Even though you listed some events of your life (Emacs, consulting, and so on), you still seem dissatisfied with that listing, and not just because it is in comparison to da Vinci’s list.

    Even da Vinci’s blurb is contracting, as it read more like “here are some events and things he mastered” vs a list of ways that he changed the way that people saw the world. Perhaps you may have answered the posted question with “happiness”, as that would have gotten a great conversations going, and quickly revealed the number of hats that you wear when you express your creativity to the world.

    Contraction expands reality and possibilities, and its a product of creativity. Contraction diminishes reality and possibilities. Keep at it and find the medium/method that is perfect for you to express that creativity you possess.

    • Ooh, that’s an interesting approach: happiness. It expands to include so much.

      I really appreciate the time you put into sharing your thoughts. Thank you!