“So, what do you do for a living?”

I hate being asked this question, having struggled with a simple response now for over two decades. I feel compelled to offer some reasonable response since it’s usually asked in a social setting, more as a polite inquiry than an interrogation. After an obligatory sigh and a smile, I try to explain, using one of my usual starting points.

man-158807_1280“I’m a scientist.”

This one is mostly true. I earned my Ph.D. in chemical physics, and I apply scientific methods to much of the work I do, even if I don’t apply them to a scientific field of study. My work in learning and development is almost all experimental, and I improve each new experiment based on the results of all those that came before. Still, it’s a long way from explaining what I actually do on a regular basis.

“I’m a technical education project leader.”

This describes my title, but it doesn’t describe much of what I do, other than lead projects related to education in a technical (space and space-related) field.

“I’m in corporate education.”

This doesn’t answer the question at all, instead describing the field I work in and, to some extent, the organization I work for. Nonetheless, a great many people define what they do based on where they work, and it seems to satisfy a great many inquiring minds.

image“I teach rocket science to rocket scientists.”

This is completely false, but gets me more quickly to what I actually do. The trouble is, I then have to explain that I don’t often teach formal classes, nor do I teach rocket science when I do teach, and my target audience more commonly consists of engineers than scientists.

So, why do I have this problem?

I have to start with the premise that it’s my issue that I can’t communicate what I do. After all, there must be some way to explain concisely what I do in a way that would satisfy both the polite inquiry and the persistent inquisition. Well, after twenty years, I haven’t found it. Maybe, just maybe, the problem lies somewhere else, perhaps with the question itself. Why is a description of my job important, anyway? The fact is, I could apply the same skills to many other kinds of jobs. It’s not the job itself that I find challenging, it’s that I’m empowered to approach my assignments, often self-assigned, in a creative way.

And there it is. A description of what I do isn’t really important to me. What I do today is not the same as what I did last year or the year before that. What is important to me is what I create, and how I approach the tasks and the needs of any given situation. I’ve always resisted canned solutions or following checklists and find such work monotonous.

If I were to describe accurately what I do, I should say that I’m a creative thinker, analyzer, innovator, creator, experimenter, leader, motivator, mentor, and problem-solver who creates learning experiences for people, most of whom are professionals with advanced technical degrees. Unfortunately, this would be an unsatisfactory answer for most people.

The end of jobs

job-search-580299_640It really shouldn’t be unsatisfactory to say that that my job is to think, create, and innovate. After all, routine jobs are increasingly becoming automated or outsourced, and yet many of these were the jobs that historically offered simple answers to the question, “What do you do?”

Harold Jarche writes frequently about the post-job economy, and he’s been spot on:

“…interconnectedness and increasing computational power will continue to automate work and outsource any job that can be standardized. New businesses are employing fewer employees, while manufacturing is moving to an increased use of robots.” He adds, “A job is not the same thing as meaningful work. Labour is replaceable, talent is not.”1

This, “End of jobs,” isn’t going to come about from an apocalyptic event straight out of Hollywood films. The reality is we’ve already seen a steady transition from jobs that accomplish repeatable tasks to far more meaningful roles that require more thinking, creating, and innovating – problem solving to meet the exponentially growing needs of a connected population. The information economy isn’t a notion or something debated by economists in universities around the world. It’s here, now, and its currency is innovation.

I’m privileged in my role in learning and development to be encouraged to exercise a wide range of skills and talent within my organization. While I have a formal positional title, it’s not nearly as important as having meaningful work to do every single day. I create, I think, I innovate. The work is far from routine, and I like it that way.

Does this ring true for anyone else? Drop me a line, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks for reading!

1Harold Jarche, “The post-job economy” http://jarche.com/2013/02/the-post-job-economy/


What is Your Job? — 3 Comments

  1. What an interesting post Tom.

    ‘I am a scientist’. Wow! I really like that :)

    I think the same question has been asked of many of us in L&D especially when we don’t do any ‘formal classroom training’ that most people associate with L&D.

    I also try to keep improving my response and make them more closer to the real work rather than my designation or job title.

    I am with JD in that you’d often hear me say – I design learning experiences that help people do their jobs more effectively. It is a mouthful but that’s what I do.

    But not everyone who asked me the question is ready for that answer. So, sometimes, I just say ‘learning designer’ or ‘performance consultant’ and start explaining if they are interested!

  2. I’m a “training manager” ;)

    And I’m a scientist too! Graduated with a BSc and spent a couple of formative years in the environmental science sector.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: