Late last year in Sydney, I was fortunate enough to be asked to volunteer as a mentor at a SheSays speed-mentoring event. In the lead-up, there was some emphasis on the fact that a bunch of men-tors would be “helping women punch through the glass ceiling” – which seemed to hover somewhere between condescending and patronising – but the event itself was pretty great and constructive. I found myself as one of the only two planning/strategy mentors there, the other being the lovely Dom Hickey (@domhickey).
One of the recurring themes of the evening was people asking me, “How can I become a strategist?” or “How can I become a planner?”
Neither Dom nor I could really point to our own paths as templated plans for becoming a planner or a strategist – it turned out that both of us studied philosophy at university (not generally considered a career move), and when we thought about the other planners and strategists we knew, their backgrounds were unpredictable and diverse: sociologists, ex-music teachers, former museum curators and at least one former pro-kickboxer. The answer tends to be, “We just fell into it.”
Unhelpful for mentoring purposes.
As the evening progressed and lines became blurred, I ended up talking to a variety of interns, students and young professionals in a variety of roles, and the same kind of question kept coming up: “How can I become a _______?” How can I become a UX specialist? How can I become a digital strategist? How can I become a social-media expert?
After a while, I began to realise that most of the time the inquirers were not really asking, “How do I become a _______?” They were asking, “How do I get hired as a _______?” Which is a whole different question.
There is something about our society that breeds obedience, conformity and a constant confusion between labels and reality.
It’s built up through childhood, when parents and teachers set the rules, set the roles, tell you what to do and how to do it. By the time kids escape from high school, it’s a wonder that they’re capable of independent thought at all, but fortunately they’re told that they’re expected to go to university and pick a
role to embody course to study. If they’re lucky at that point, they’ll accidentally meet someone, read something or ingest something that derails their sensible progress into the Pick-a-Path selection of templates for adulthood, but luck’s not a common thing.
Having reached adulthood, one embarks on one’s career, which is generally envisaged as a linear path of arithmetic advancement that culminates in retirement and death. And for a significant portion of that journey (sometimes all of it), people look to others to tell them what to do, how to do it, and what to expect.
Rare is the person who cannot mad-lib their way through: “I am a _______. I get paid to _________. Once I’ve done this for long enough, I’ll be allowed to be a _________.”
The marketing industry likes to give itself a big old pat on the arse congratulating itself on being creative and interesting and freethinking, but in actual fact it sits somewhere alongside the armed services as one of the worst offenders in this matter. It starts with the delineation of “suits” versus “creatives” and ends with a granular diversity of job titles like “traffic coordinator”, “email marketing specialist” and “search-engine marketer”.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with identifying the many different tasks that must be executed in the running of an agency of any size. Nor is there anything wrong with recognising that particular people fill particular roles in these complicated organisms. But if the majority of my conversations that night are anything to go by, there’s an unspoken lesson being taught in ostensibly creative agencies that you are your job title – and if you want to be someone else, you need a new job title first.
That’s arse-backwards. (Wait. That term makes no sense. I’ll try again.)
That’s… That’s around the wrong way. That’s… arse… forwards.
If you want to be paid to do something, you’ll have to get some experience in it. Just because your current job title doesn’t describe what you want to do, that doesn’t mean anything is stopping you from doing it. Just start doing it! Do it in your spare time. Do it instead of checking Facebook at work. Do it after hours. Do it when no one’s looking at work. Do it for someone who needs it, for free.
Hey, vaguely discontent project-manager girl who wants to be a designer:
Hey, freelancing graphic designer who wants to specialise in UX:
DO A UX PROJECT FOR SOMEONE!
Hey, account manager who wants to get into account planning:
SIT IN ON SOME PLANNING MEETINGS!
Don’t wait to be given permission to get experience doing the work you want to do.
If you want to be a doctor, please disregard the preceding.