Jobs Are Not Nouns, They're Verbs
What do you want to be when you grow up?
“Project manager!”, said no one ever.
Here’s a list of things kids dream of being when they grow up: Doctor. Veterinarian. Musician. Nurse. Athlete. Pilot. Actor. Painter. Writer. Lawyer. Fashion Designer. Graphic Artist. Astronaut. Computer programmer. Firefighter. Police officer. Scientist.
How come no kid is laying in bed, envisioning life as an advertiser, advisor, analyst, consultant, sales rep, marketer, or most any white collar job?
It has to do with verbs.
Let me explain.
When someone asks “What do you do for work?”, we typically answer with a noun. We state what we are. “I’m a barista.” “I’m a dancer.” “I’m a flight attendant.” “I’m an entrepreneur.” “I’m the Head of HR.” (Or the strange, echolocation answer, “I’m in advertising.”)
But when someone asks, “What do you do for fun?”, we always answer with a crisp action verb. The “doing” is easily imagined. I walk, run, skate, knit, ski, read, etc.
Now, go back and look at why those “dream jobs'' stand out. It’s because we can picture what verbs each of those professionals seemingly spend the most time doing, i.e., playing the violin, teaching in a classroom, putting out fires, acting on stage, arresting “bad guys,” flying planes, going into space, or running experiments in a lab.
Beyond self-expression or helping others, there’s some sort of perceived agency; a direct correlation between input and outcome.
Because our jobs are not nouns. They are verbs.
Picture for me any of these verbs: consult, manage, market, analyze, or “be the head of.”
They are too obscure or nuanced to explain, let alone experience. That’s because all of those concept verbs are hiding the rat’s nest of action verbs that come with the hierarchies, bureaucracies, ambiguities, policies, politics, and social dynamics of white collar work.
No one wants to be John from State Farm, they want to be Jake from State Farm.
Because, while Jake performs on TV commercials, John is stuck doing a bevy of unceremonious tasks like:
Email follow up
Pitching a client
Getting roped into some last minute work
Dealing with a problem customer
Conducting performance reviews
Writing case studies
Persuading coworkers to do it his way
Drafting a statement of work
Putting together a one-pager
Editing the same presentation for the 16th time
Killing time while looking busy
In the white collar world, there is a gulf between a job title and what that job actually entails. This causes so much angst with folks because when it comes to work, you’ll brag about your noun, but you’ll judge yourself (and be judged) on your verbs.
So if you’re wanting to change jobs or do something else, first ask someone who has that title, “What does your job entail?” and then ask, “How often do you (the thing you might be interested in doing)?" And maybe even, “What’s the worst part about your job?”
There will be verbs. There will always be verbs. What’s more, two people with the same job title at different companies may be acting out completely different verbs every day.
No job is pure verbing bliss. Scientists don’t want to write grants. Teachers don’t want to deal with administrators. Nurses don’t want to learn new patient management software. Hopefully the BS verbs that come with any occupation are limited or can be culled, because to swallow what you do day in and day out, you’ll either have to enjoy:
the majority of the verbs that fill your day
the people you’re around while enacting your verbs
the money you make verbing, or
the impact your verbs have on some outcome
Be careful hunting for nouns if all you really want is the verb
A few years back I was toying with the idea of becoming a full-time writer. I quite enjoy the craft of writing, the “wrestling with a bear in a dimly lit corn maze” as I’ve said before, but did I want to be a writer? A colleague of mine is a big-time journalist. He gave me a great piece of advice:
Finding stories is harder than reporting or writing them. I spend about 50% of my time looking for stories. I spend 45% of my time reporting. I spend barely 5% of my time writing. That's because in many ways, the magazines are paying me less for my ability to report and write (though clearly I have to do that well) than for my ability to find a story that is perfect for them. It's really hard. I will spend as much time researching a pitch -- only to discard it when I decide it isn't quite good enough -- as a newspaper staffer would spend reporting and writing a 2,000-word feature they publish.
What’s the lesson here?
You don’t have to become a writer to write. You don’t have to be a painter to paint. The creative noun is a 24/7 identity filled with all kinds of ancillary verbs that may drive you nuts. The creative verb is something you can express any moment you want.
After all, our life is one continuous chain of verbs, one moment after another.
Choose them wisely.