November 20, 2014 - A few years back, while rummaging at a church bazaar, we found a painting of the Grand Tetons. It was one of those prefab “paintings”, painted by a machine for mass consumption, barely classifiable as art except that you can hang it on a wall.
We bought it for $4. It was ridiculous, but we didn’t care. We bought it. It is titled “The Tetons,” and it sits over our fireplace. A portrait of some mountains as a weird conversation piece.
No Definition in a Storm
I don’t know what to tell people when they ask me what I do. I tell them that I help plan websites, because using my actual professional titles – content strategist; information architect; user experience strategist – leads to more confusion.
Confusion not about what the title means, but about whether or not I do the things necessary to claim those titles. This is the struggle with labels and definitions: in the web world, the labels and definitions change so quickly that we can’t keep up. There’s what we know. There’s what the professional title suggests. And then there’s the middle part, a Venn diagram overlap that gets thinner and thinner.
Here’s what I know. I analyze audience needs. I develop the vision of what the project might become. I bridge the gap between a client’s dreams and the reality of the web. I solve problems. I define scope.
Depending on the project, I am a content strategist. I am an information architect. I am a copywriter or I am a counselor or I am something in the middle of it all. But the labels never fit. The scope of the industry keeps shifting away from the knowledge I’ve accrued. And the fear of becoming irrelevant crashes ashore.
This Is Your Camp
Two weeks ago I spent the weekend in the company of some of my favorite people. That they are all in the web industry is no longer relevant – while positioned as a content strategy retreat, we spent most of our time focusing on confidence and adaptation and self worth and adjustment.
No amount of page tables or style guides can help someone deftly rearrange their methods, so we talked about the things that are hard to learn from a handful of blog posts. Feelings and shit. The mushy stuff.
When you house 21 people for three days, the differences start to melt away. The titles and labels become worthless, falling back as everyone defines their own weird amoebic position. Experience gives way to expertise. Hierarchy gives way to patience. Even the most well known in your group still want to be a part of the whole; still want to learn new things.
Meals are shared. Wine is opened. Everyone settles in and conversations erupt all over the place. Comfort is taken for granted – there is no reason we should all be as happy as we are.
But, for a few days, those labels don’t matter. There’s no one to impress here. Except maybe yourself.
Impostor syndrome is a real and crappy thing, but this isn’t impostor syndrome. That’s the feeling that you’re not good enough – that you’re worried everyone will see you as the fraud you are.
This is more like the fear of missing out – on an entirely different, non-social level. This isn’t DVRing seventeen television shows you’ll never have time to watch. This is, instead, watching very smart people write very smart things and struggling to integrate this new thinking into your already crowded process.
For me, professional FOMO comes whenever a friend writes a great article. Instead of springing to action to finish one of my own thousand-word tomes, I instead hang my head and consider myself another step behind.
It’s finding out my colleagues have moved on from something I’ve just learned. It’s remembering that there are people who dedicate their lives to just one small aspect of my three or four disciplines.
I feel like this a lot. But it used to be worse. During our first content strategy retreat, over a year ago, we opened by discussing where we want to be in the next year. Client aspirations and new skills and business shifts dominated the conversation. Mine was pure and simple FOMO.
“A year from now I just want to be caught up.”
Everything stopped, and my friend Sara asked me, simply, “Why do you think you’re not caught up?”
I had no answer. FOMO Exposed.
Where You Are is Perfect
You don’t need a group of 21 people to understand that there’s no such thing as catching up. That there’s no such thing as nailing down the title and encompassing the perfect example of your industry’s golden child.
You just need to have a little context.
On a kayak, in an inlet snaking away from Chesapeake Bay, I remembered why I loved what I do. I could soak up a dozen smart voices and then I could head out the door for a bit. I could be present, and then I could get lost, and when I returned it wasn’t a question of where I was. It was a question of how I could help.
I don’t want to sound like a cat poster here, but understanding our talents and skills within the context of the world is important. There aren’t a lot of people in any of these industries – from web strategy to front-end development to web project management.
We solve problems in a new medium, and because that medium is new there are multiple acceptable methodologies. There is no definition. The titles are all bullshit. We have one goal when we go to work: make the web a little better.
One of the mottos of the retreat this year: “Where you are right now is perfect.” We weren’t there to become perfect practitioners or bring everyone to the same level or define some rigid methodology for How Things Are Done. We were there to help each other keep moving forward.
This is Not Impostor Syndrome
I didn’t want to write a blog post about impostor syndrome. I didn’t want to make the connection between expertise and experience. I didn’t want to make a claim for which one is more valuable.
I also didn’t want to mush on and on about friends and believing in yourself and all of that. I know good work takes hard work and feeling sorry for yourself does no good. Suck it up. Move on. Suffer no fools.
But that’s not realistic, is it?
The thing is, we are what we want to be. We adapt with the shifts in our scope. We only know what we’ve been taught, or what we’ve bothered to learn, and so instead of worrying about what we know we should instead worry about what we can do. Future tense. Iteration. Adaptation.
We put the painting above the fireplace, front and center. And a week later it dawned on us.
Wait. A. Minute.
The painting is a total fraud. It wasn’t even a picture of the Tetons – a fact that I, of all people at that bazaar, should have noticed. The title distracted me from the actual content; my mind assumed a snow-peaked mountain labelled as such would be genuine.
Funny thing – we didn’t care. We still love it. It still sits above the fireplace. We love it more now than when we thought it was accurate.
The analogy might make no sense (it’s not like you can be a total mess and the right title might save you) but I think of that painting when I see people struggling with self worth. When I see myself struggling with what remains of my own impostor syndrome.
We are what we are, and assuming otherwise can harm us. So we are truthful. We show people value through energy and willingness and expertise. We don’t worry about what we call ourselves. We don’t care about the industry standard. We move forward and embrace whatever it is we are led to do.
We are present. We get lost. We return for more. And where we are is perfect.