In grad school, I remember a conversation across the campus green with an visiting psychologist from Harvard. I don’t remember much about the conversation except that he introduced me to Isaiah Berlin’s notion of the Hedgehog and the Fox, and correctly pegged me as a Fox. I think I was a bit offended at the simplification, but time has proven him right. I’m certainly no hedgehog.
I got into a silly argument on twitter last night, about whether my looking to hire someone who I labeled (as job descriptions make us do) a “Coding Designer” was not just foolish (I’d seen the Unicorn references in my tweetstream already) but apparently a bad idea, because, so the ultra-simplified argument goes, you somehow can’t be both. And so I’ll use the energy to rant a bit about what seem to be prevailing attitudes around titleism and narrow definitions of “professionalism”.
We all need to define ourselves to others. It helps us be understood, and hopefully valued. Labels can be useful for that. We also, even more, like to label others. It helps us simplify our approach to them. If I can find a label for you, then I can rely on a prioris about how people with that label tend to think and behave, and I don’t need to actually get to know you too much. The more people we interact with, the more important these shortcuts are. Some roles are particularly subject to that (Recruiters, VCs, politicians, etc. — people who routinely talk to dozens if not hundreds of people a day). And the best at these roles are those who use a different labeling system than their peers. Recruiters who see the latent ambition or genius in a shy candidate; VCs who see the determination behind a stutter, or, conversely, the lack of self-confidence behind the bravado, etc.
Labels are useful and practical in the short term. And I don’t know how one could run a large HR department without them. But we should be careful to not take them too seriously, as in the long term, they can hurt. They hurt because people, especially interesting, worth-getting-to-know people, are much more subtle, complicated, confusing and hard to categorize creatures. Whether you take the label too seriously when thinking about others (e.g., refuse to see the valid opinion about a design expressed by a non-Designer) or about yourself (and limit your impact on the world because “oh, that’s not something that a mere ____ like me could say/do”), you’re not getting the most out of anyone involved.
As I write this, I realize that I feel quite strongly about this topic. Part of it is probably because I grew up in an educational system, which at least then believed way too much in labeling people and determining their fate based on that label. Much waste ensued. Part of it is probably because I can’t for the life of me figure out what my label should be, and if I can’t, then that must be bad. I’ve had a range of professional labels, from scientist to engineer, architect, team lead, vice president, CTO, CEO, blah blah blah. I’ve been called a designer, strategist, entrepreneur, boss, blah blah blah. None of those words will, I hope, be in my epitaph. And so I get cranky on twitter at night, because if there are people who strive to be both excellent at design and at coding, then by golly we should encourage them.
Titles are a poor approximation of a professional ideal, and a profession is a poor approximation of a human’s breadth, contributions, and talents. Embrace your inner fox, and if you happen to have both design and coding skills, can see a problem, conjure up a solution, prototype it, welcome challenges to your idea from peers, data, and users, apply.