Multipotentiality at Work
2017-10-23 04:00:00 -0700
I often felt it was hard for me to find my place in a work environment. Even at the BBC. Earlier in May, Frank introduced me to the Multipotentiality notion. All of a sudden, it became clearer why this feeling kept following me for decades.
A dilemma kept bugging me whenever people asked me about my job title:
- a simplistic answer (
I am a web developer), easier to understand – but it hurts my own feelings as I was silencing a part of my identity;
- an exhaustive answer, harder to grasp — one might wonder if I had a real job.
As the time passed, I felt any job title to be less and less encompassing what I felt I could do on a daily basis.
Sud Web is a conference about multidisciplinarity and the web. Two events brought me back to the aforementioned dilemma:
- the gaze of a person when I rose my hand at the question "are you a designer?" — it was implied I could not claim design skills given my developer background;
- the half-jokingly and patronising response directed to someone who said "I feel like I am mostly a developer at the moment" – they were asked to choose one answer only.
I am angry at these remarks. They seem harmless although they clearly hurt when defining yourself is a lifelong challenge. They clearly hurt when you feel you don't fit in mainstream norms. It hurts even more when it pushes you to justify yourself, publicly.
Fear and shame are just one step away from this point.
Because why would we be different?
I'd rather ask:
why are we expected to be similar when we are not?
The "I feel like I am…" Workshop
The angry feeling kept bugging me on the second day of the conference. The second day is organised as an open forum. I wanted to heal from this feeling. I also wanted to learn how others would feel and respond about it. So I added a sticky note to the open forum marketplace. I labeled it: "I feel like I am…" ("Je suis plutôt…") to signpost a continuity. My plan was to learn how people envisioned and defined themselves by providing a safe space, respectful of others opinions.
The one hour session attracted a dozen of people. I facilitated it as follows:
- the room was arranged to host a fishbowl:
- one outer circle of people sitting and listening;
- one inner circle of three chairs with two people sitting and able to speak;
- I opened the session by asking everyone to complete the "I feel like I am…" sentence, in sequence;
- we ended up doing a few more rounds as the group dynamic became autonomous and developed the conversation on its own.
I only learnt about the fishbowl a couple hours before. It was easy enough to setup and to run for a first time. The maturity of the attendees clearly helped a lot.
Here are various testimonies of the session attendees. They were asked to complete the sentence
I feel like I am…:
- I don't know • I fulfil 3 roles at the same time;
- … like an intern;
- … like a curious person;
- … like a dad • I spend time with my newborn, and learn about photography to create memories;
- … like a dad • I am an architect who can code; I do what I know with a transversal vision;
- … like a newcomer;
- … like a frontend developer • my main background is UX and accessibility but I recently opened a café philo and resumed my studies;
- … like a creative food designer • I like jumping from an activity to another; I follow a creative thread I like; I craft activities with collaborative practices;
- … like a content strategist • my job title does not exist in French but I like finding the right words and the right formats to convey ideas and messages;
- … like a researcher • I use UX, UI and sketch notes on work areas which are totally unrelated; I keep exploring and do not intend to specialise;
- I don't know • I am in a 360º mode: I like writing, playing music, agile practices, visual design but I struggle to follow a well-defined path.
I can still picture the relaxed ambiance of the session. I remember enjoying the sense of a growing enthusiasm as people were discovering similar and complementary traits in each other.
Some recurring tensions kept coming back in the dialogue:
- their job titles do not encompass the reality of their daily activities;
- not feeling legit to claim a job title with unproven experience;
- being overwhelmed by the
What's your day job?question;
- an urge to keep exploring, including in areas not known to be linked to their main background;
- an appetite to combine multiple skills and practices together;
- a need to balance leisure and work activities, both being essential at an equal level.
I would say people embracing their multipotentiality develop themselves by learning new skills (horizontal development) – whereas their social environment understands them on a career development level (vertical development). One is valued internally whereas the latter is valued externally (dominant social norms).
The job title issue
The job title is a social marker. It directs candidates to job offers at first. It makes us readable on the market. But it also wraps us in a predefined set of skills. When you are not a white man, you have to fight even harder to make yourself heard.
I had to move to the UK to notice a switch of attitude towards developers. In France, a developer costs money; they are not perceived as creative people. Plus they create bugs! Yeah, like it is deliberate. What the fu*k France! In England, I found out developers bring value to a product. Because they bloody build what brings cash in. Same job. Different perceptions.
The job title can silence our full spectrum of knowledge and skills. I still remember being told at my first workplace ever: « What do you know about marketing, you are just a web developer? ». There was no question of how and why I knew about web marketing. Just a bland statement. This is the day I decided I would quit.
Is it work or is it leisure?
This extra day out of work meant less money on the payroll. It did not matter: it gave me the time I needed to practice… permaculture. Instead of attending high grade but costly trainings, I started volunteering in a urban farm. To learn by practice. To connect to a different community.
Although it feels unrelated to computing, permaculture felt like travelling to a well known territory. I found its upcycling concepts to be close to standard streams. I recognised myself in its social values. In its proximity to agile principles. Because it is a design system by itself.
It has been fulfilling to go away from the computer, to become a newbie again, to be welcomed in a community I did not belonged to. It was fulfilling to enjoy slow paced days, plunging my hands in the soil and simmering ideas in the background.
It was a leisure. It was unpaid work. It helped me at my paid work.
How to build a better job
Various people are interviewed. They are asked what makes their work life miserable. And on the contrary, how going beyond the embodiment of their job title makes them feel better, in sync with themselves.<iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/540648577/554103065" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="How To Build A Better Job to be played in NPR embedded audio player"></iframe>
- describing a project we are working on, and our implication in it (
I do X on project Y,
My main background is X and at the moment I combine it with Y with Z);
- listing what we are learning (
I learn X in company Y which deos Z and Z');
- making up a job title (software designer, UX programmer, creative technologist, etc).
In the end, is it a problem of job title? Is it a problem of work culture? Or is it rather a problem of misunderstanding human needs?
Job titles can scratch our self-perception. They are good at signposting workers in a company. They truly lack of subtleness when it's about understanding what roles can be fulfilled by individuals. Career paths usually work as an elevator from Junior to a C-level.
Multipotential people career path might look like a hiking trail. With a focus on the experience and not so much on the performance. We might lead or follow depending on the group. We might read the map and play by ear. Our best work experience might happen in a multidisciplinary group with fluid roles.
Job titles should probably be replaced by composite roles (
I do this, this and that). Work environments might start thinking more of how to nurture their employees, how to fulfil their needs and how to encourage skills overlaps.
We incorporated our cooperative company with David and Clémentine a year ago, in October 2016. We are both employees and partners. We get paid and collectively agree how much we want to earn. .
I haven't found a job title yet but I certainly have found a way to craft my job every day, as I learn, create and evolve.