Reinvent the Story of What You Do

I reckon we often default to a stereotype explanation of what we do for a living.

I’ve always found it tricky to explain what I do.  If I name a profession, it only tells part of the story.

In social and professional settings, you can watch eyes glaze over very quickly if you launch into a complex or dull explanation about what you do. Or else if you are ‘on song’ people can get really engaged and enthused.

When I was a journalist, people always believed they knew what that was. And for many, if they didn’t have a big hate going on for the paparazzi or the media in general, they would say, ‘wow that must be a really interesting life.’

But what is journalism? Is it a profession? Is it a craft? People know how to categorise roles like doctor or plumber, but a journalist is to most people some sort of a writer.

My point is we stereotype and categorise the jobs we do, and it creates separations, making teams and workplaces less efficient and communities more segregated.

I came across some really interesting ethnographic research into chefs and cooks and how they viewed their work. Researcher Gary Alan Fine was working on Occupational Rhetoric Theory, in other words the stories we tell ourselves and others about our work.

Fine found chefs could describe themselves as a professional, an artist, a businessman and a manual labourer. As in fact what they did was made up of all of these descriptions. As a professional they might use an analogy and say they prepare food like a surgeon, as an artist they produce creative results, as a businessman they are conscious of profitability, and as a labourer they have to complete some repetitive physical tasks.

Eric Stromberg used this research to look at why US online retail company Zappos has become incredibly successful through excellent customer service.

The Zappos training is so successful because employees learn to be a professional, to be creative and to do the hard yards of manual tasks so they understand the company as a whole, and support a powerful culture.

If we reinvent the stories we tell about what we do it can produce some remarkable results.

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