I try to avoid situations in which people ask me what I do for a living.
It’s not that I do anything particularly shameful, such as robbing banks or being a banker, it’s just that if I’m in a conversation where someone asks me what I do, it means at least one of four undesirable things have happened to get us there: (1) I am speaking with a herd animal trying to figure out where I fit in his personal pecking order, or (2) he lets his job define him and assumes I’ve done the same, or (3) he is trying to figure out how much life insurance he can sell me or, most commonly, (4) we have nothing of substance to discuss.
Lately I find myself having more and more of these conversations, probably because my wife’s and daughter’s social obligations require me to attend ever more meet-and-greets whose rules of superficial social engagement self-select for a disproportionately high number of people whose gambit while working the room is to feign interest in what you do for a living.
Most discussions along these lines elevate form over substance. Who do you work for? What is your title? Where is your place of business? Does Bob still work there? The point seems to be to maximize the proper nouns, minimize the understanding.
To shake things up a bit, I’ve starting telling people I’m a “problem solver.” Although I do have a title, and a box on an org chart, and, at least in theory, a job description, which are exactly the factoids these people crave, I’m withholding this meaningless information and simply telling people that I solve other people’s problems.
This has the benefit of being the truth: I actually do spend most of my time solving problems. It also has the benefit, I hope, of increasing the likelihood that I’ll meet someone at one of these functions who can teach me something. Solving other people’s problems is often a challenging and solitary job, so I’d appreciate the opportunity to pick the brains of someone else doing this sort of thing. It’s hard to find problem solvers — it’s not the sort of job people put onto an org charts, you never see a “VP of Solving Screw-Ups” — so to increase my chances of finding these people I have to get behind the titles and start talking function.
If I ever do find a fellow-traveler at one of these functions, here are a few of the problem solving occupational hazards I'd like to discuss:
Superiority complex: I often see people at their worst, doing things I’m sure I would never do, so it’s a constant struggle for me not to over-extrapolate what I see into thinking (a) everyone is an idiot and (b) except me. Neither is true, but it’s hard to see that when you spend all your time mired in the dark underbelly of underperformance. I try to stay humble, but I’m afraid someday I’ll have humility forced on me the hard way, by creating my own problem that someone else has to solve.
Decelerated learning: I learn more when I feel like everyone else knows more than me. Insecurity is a great motivator. Spend your time dealing with other people’s problems and you quickly lose that insecurity, as, alas, you discover that those around you aren’t supermen and women but all-too human people who make mistakes just like you. This realization might be psychologically healthy, but it’s a little too healthy for me. It makes me feel too secure. A few years ago I noticed that without my insecure edge I wasn’t learning as much as I once did, and ever since I’ve been trying to find people who’ll make me feel more insecure. It isn’t easy, what with all the problems I see, but I keep trying.
Grim reaper: While optimism is essential to human endeavor, pessimism seems to be the essential ingredient in problem solving. In the early stages of a problem, people are usually in denial, either out of defensiveness or an overabundance of optimism, so they fail to act quickly and decisively and end up letting the problem metastasize. I go in expecting the worst and often find that even I’ve underestimated the situation. All this gives you an overdeveloped sense of impending doom, one that ends up permeating everything you do, as you perceive fragility where others assume solidity. It’s a drag. It’s also, I fear, a particularly distorted lens through which to view the world.