Nothing Man – How to Self-Identify Yourself

What do you do?

This question terrifies me. What do you do? How am I supposed to answer that?

I’m assuming you’d like to know where I work or what I do at my job. How would you like me to answer that?

I could tell you that I have a “day job” working IT and do full-time consulting on the side. This answer is rarely satisfying because to them (and me), IT means so many things and no one really knows what consultants do.

One day I attempted to record everything I actually do for people rather than use labels like “IT guy”, “web designer”, or “business consultant.” What I found that I was more like an operator or information repository. I would get requests and spit back results or information. I’m a human Github.

So you’re at a networking event or a nice dinner party and the person across from you asks you what you do. What do you say?

I have a friend that always starts off by talking about his family. He says, “I have a wife and five kids, with another one on the way.” Only then does he go into what he does during the day, and even then, he does not usually mention the actual business name.

In the movie, Anger Management, Jack Nicholson’s character asks Adam Sandler’s character, “Who are you?”

Sandler’s character starts off by stating his position and the company he works for, but is quickly interrupted by Nicholson’s character who again asks, for him to tell “Who you are.”

Sandler then says he’s “a pretty good guy, likes to play tennis…” to which Nicholson says, “Not your hobbies, tell us who you are.”

Sandler can’t come up with a good answer so he asks other people in the room to tell him who he is. Everyone laughs.

Sandler then retries by talking about how he’s “a nice guy, easy going” to which Nicholson says, “You’re describing your personality. We want to know who you are.”

Finally, Sandler admits he doesn’t know how to respond. I’ve been there.

I’m the first to admit I don’t know how to describe myself. Often times I will pour over data that I’ve created (blog posts, tweets, emails) just to get a sense of who I am. I still don’t know.

I help organizations categorize products, people, and information, but I don’t know how to categorize myself. Maybe that’s because I’m a person and not a blog post.

People are complicated. That’s not new information. We are capable of doing a lot of things, but from another person’s perspective, it’s easier to remember someone else for one specific thing. This is called “shoeboxing” or ‘filling that slot in your brain’.

To some clients I’m their “IT guy”. To others I’m their “web guy”. To my children, I’m their “Daddy”. To my parents, I’m their “son”. The roles I play are contextual based on where I am and what I’m doing, which is why it’s so hard to pick just one thing when someone asks, “What do you do?”

There is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” My brother says this. I used to, but I’ve since learned that it’s good to be good at something.

In Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, he talks about how it was valuable for him to know how to do “everything” so that anytime he was able to take advantage of a situation, he could. This is an extreme example, but not too different from what liberal arts colleges espouse about getting a well-rounded education.

Let me spin this positive.

People who used to be good at a lot of things were called “renaissance men”, which is less commonly known as “polymaths” – someone who “spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.”

Polymaths are adroit, they have skill, cleverness, or resourcefulness in handling a variety of situations. Today we might call that “emotional intelligence”, but it’s more than that. It’s purposeful, deliberate practice from someone with perseverance and grit.

When someone says they are good at a lot of things, but the master of none, what they’re really saying is that they’re adaptable and a problem solver.

The world is changing pretty fast. It may not be such a good idea to become an expert in any one thing so as not to have that thing go away in a short amount of time – far better to learn how to always be adding value.

The next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll say, “Nothing, man.” Because I do whatever people ask me to do. That’s how I add value.

Update 3/10/2014:

I just watched The Lego Movie and although I am unable to find a transcript of Emmett’s speech to the Master Builders, in general he says something like ‘There is nothing special about me.’ It made me think of this post. He’s Nothing Man, too – and yet he’s able to use this as a strength – and save the world. Maybe I can too. 🙂