What you do ≠ what you are

Guilty song confession time: when I’m out driving, I like to listen to the song “What am I” by Why Don’t We. It’s catchy, easy to sing along to, and good for driving fast. These are the three things I want from a good car tune. I know what you’re thinking… Is this post going to be about cheesy driving songs? No, but it is going to as the question the song poses, what am I, and more specifically - what do you do?

Here’s Jonathan Stark in one of his emails:

When people ask you what you do, what do you say?
Do you stumble and have trouble answering?
Do you say something flippant or dismissive, like “computer stuff”?
Do you answer differently every time, depending on who’s asking?

We experience the same struggle over and over. To be honest, it doesn’t matter whether people ask us about what we do, what our product does, or even what our company does. We have trouble answering in a short and understandable way when put on the spot.

You may be thinking that what you do actually is really simple to describe - that you’re a ‘designer’ or a ‘developer’. You may even be more specific and say something like you’re a ‘Javascript developer for form-dependent webapps’. But, either way, what you’re describing is just your expertise or your deliverables. Unless the person you’re talking to is someone who is on the hunt for a Javascript developer for a form-dependent webapp, your answer is just talking about you and not the potential client outcomes. Again, all of this is just as true when it comes to products or companies, but let’s continue looking at this from a person-perspective.

Jonathan uses an example that’s outside of our digital sphere. Imagine meeting someone and you ask them what they do:

Which of these answers do you find more powerful?
“I stretch and manipulate deep layers of muscle and connective tissue to the max.”
“I help professional athletes get back in the game after being sidelined by an injury.”

Just like in Pain, Dream, Fix, it focuses on the client outcomes and the result you can bring them instead of focusing on irrelevant variables. After all, we just tend to throw around variables to make it sound like we’re the experts, right? This example from Jonathan offers a clear outcome and fix (get back in the game), for a defined pain (being sidelined by an injury) for a defined set of customers (professional athletes). Most importantly, it tells the story of what they do in a way that is easy to understand and engage with.

The customer is focused on their pain point and looking to the open market to provide them with their solution. Your product isn’t what they want, the end result is. Your customer doesn’t want your vacuum cleaner, they want a clean apartment.Pain, Dream, Fix

Once you know what problem you can solve, you can start to think about how you’ll communicate it differently than everyone else and stand out.

Why you?

There’s thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people that have a similar knowledge of things that you do. I’m certainly not the only freelance UX-designer and while more and more of the work I do is leading teams, it’s still not a differentiator.

Someone who knew that he had to find his own style was Ed Sheeran. Before Ed Sheeran got his first hit, he started injecting rap into his singer/songwriter songs - because it was something he loved. The added effect is that it was something that positioned him differently. There are millions of unrecognized singer/songwriters. Not only did it change his style, but it also changed his context. Instead of playing singer/songwriter nights, he started playing open mic’s. In fact, one of his breakthrough moments was when he was sleeping on the Jamie Foxx’s couch.

It was like 800 black people, all black, just the best musicians,” Foxx said of the show. He explained that his musician friends were initially incredulous that Sheeran would do well in such an environment. “So all of a sudden I say, ‘Ladies and gentleman, Ed Sheeran!’ He pops out, with red hair and a ukulele,” Foxx continued. “It was just like a movie. I said, ‘Well, let’s see what the kid has.’ And he went out there on that ukulele — got a standing ovation in 12 minutes. And the rest was history.”

So… what do you do?

Defining what you do or what your product does is one of the most difficult things to clearly state. It could also be one of the most important things you state. Take the time to think about beyond your expertise and into how you implement it. It isn’t that you DO something, it’s how that thing EFFECTS outcomes. After all, you’re not just a UX-designer… You actually provide solutions for clients that help them connect with their audience through meaningful, thought-provoking experiences. Right?


Exercise: I want to learn more about about you and what you do! Take what I just wrote and apply it to yourself. Describe what you do through this model and let me know the client(s) you serve, the problem you set out to solve, and the outcomes you achieve. Remember to be creative and honest. This will be something you can use to describe yourself and what you do in almost any setting!


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