What’s in a Title? More Than You Think
From “Manager” to “Working on something new”, thoughts on how we label ourselves
I file my taxes every year and the process is pretty straight-forward — collect my forms, document deductions, upload for my accountant to review — but this year, I faced a new question for the first time — “Steven” my accountant asked, “what’s your occupation?”
I didn’t anticipate how much this question would weigh on my mind. I left my full-time job in 2020 to work on startup ideas. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but I knew I wanted to try new things, work on ideas I had had for some time, and make room for new areas of learning and exploration. I had saved up enough money to live off of for awhile, but not for the rest of my life. I was definitely not “Retired”.
Up until this point, I had used the title “Manager” for many years, on my taxes and when telling people what I did — first as a manager of projects, programs and products, then as a manager of people and teams, and ultimately as a leader of a global business division. Titles become part of our identity, the way we introduce ourselves to people when asked “what do you do?” It’s what we put on our resumes, our LinkedIn profiles, and our obituaries.
I come from a family of many medical professionals — physicians, specialists and nurses. These types of professions keep their title for life. Once a doctor, always a doctor. When a flight crew asks if there’s a doctor aboard, you can always say yes, even if you’ve retired. But for me, now that I wasn’t managing people and someone else’s business goals, could I still call myself a “Manager”?
In the startup world I had entered — one in which everyone has an idea but the real trick is building and executing and sticking with it through thick and thin — it’s fashionable to see the label “Working on something new” as a title on LinkedIn and Twitter bios. I’ve used it as well. It’s just vague enough to indicate you’re focused on something, but not actually wasting the day away binging on Netflix and cable news. I was curious to know, for those “working on something new”, how do you identify in terms of title?
I decided to run a quick survey in my social and professional circles and see how people felt.
I found that, by far, the most common title used is “Founder”, with a smattering of “Principle”, “CEO” and “Owner” showing up. I like the title “Founder”. And yes, I’ve used it as well, though not on my taxes. It connotes entrepreneurialism, a risk-taking attitude, tech-bro cool. With a title like Founder, you’re more likely to be showered with VC money for just an idea and a strong pitch, if you’re passionate and maybe a little crazy. But can I still use this title if what I’ve founded hasn’t taken off yet, made money, or at least been funded? Does the term Founder apply to any idea, or is there a higher bar to meet?
I considered using the title “Entrepreneur” for myself, but this felt even vaguer than “Founder”, and slightly shady too. Is “Entrepreneur” a title, an adjective, or just a state of mind? In online forums, the debate is fierce. It seems like an obvious label to use when exploring new things, but is it a permanent state or just a passing phase, until you find success and a new title, or move on to the next idea? Entrepreneur feels ambiguous and passé, a relic from an earlier time that hasn’t maintained its cool factor.
Maybe I was over-thinking the title thing and putting too much stock in it. Yes, it’s a part of our identify, but none of us are just one thing. My favorite bios are ones in which people reveal more about their life outside of their profession, their passions and interests, bios in which you learn more than just what someone’s occupation is. For example:
- Richard Branson: Tie-loathing adventurer, philanthropist & troublemaker, who believes in turning ideas into reality. Otherwise known as Dr Yes at @virgin!
- Dan Rather: Journalist, storyteller, lifelong reader. Texan by birth and by choice. Author of WHAT UNITES US #WhatUnitesUs and the Steady letter #steady .
- Dionne Warwick: I am not writing a bio.
Shout-out to Dionne. But then, I discovered two things.
First: going back to that tax form question, what you put as occupation may actually be more impactful than you realize. According to some accountants, the title doesn’t impact your tax rate but it can impact your risk of being audited(!) Apparently, there are some professions where tax filers are considered more shady and likely to cheat — artists, entertainers, consultants for example. The IRS assigns a DIF — discriminate income function — based on the profession you indicate. The value of this number may be linked to the likelihood of audit. (Source: Robert Kirby, CPA) I doubt the IRS would ever confirm it, but it’s certainly another example of data-fueled artificial intelligence that can have real impact on our lives. Marc Andreessen was right when he wrote in 2011 that software is eating the world.
Second: implicit bias is everywhere, whether we like it or not, and the tech platforms that we rely on for connection, information and opportunity are thinking about the question of titles as well. Just this week, LinkedIn announced it was adding more titles to their platform, such as “stay-at-home mom” and caretaker options, to respond to changes in the workforce. Concern with choosing one title over another isn’t just about how we want to present ourselves to the world, but also about how the world views us and makes assumptions based on that view.
So, what did I end up with? Basically a mix of all the above, at least for now — Entrepreneur in some conversations, Founder in others, and “Writer”, “Investor” or “Ski bum” sometimes thrown in for fun.
As for those taxes — truthfully, I haven’t decided yet. The filing deadline was extended to May which has bought me some time to make the decision. Maybe by then one of my identities will outweigh the others, or I’ll find success in a project and be able to go back to that generic “Manager” that I leaned on for so long.