Shifting Identities

In a twist on my younger self, I saw a joke recently about what you’d tell your eight year old self. Which reminded me of my mom and her collection of bells. Anybody who knew my mom knew she collected bells and if they wanted to get her a present, it would be a bell. My mom’s collection was getting out of control and she soon told people to stop.

We often associate topics or things or ideas to specific people and that becomes part of their personal brand identity. “Oh, you’re the person who likes bells” (or owls or whatever). Many in my personal life currently associate me with whisky or cocktails or fancy restaurants. (That last one is amusing if you knew how often I eat at McDonald’s.) And come birthday or Christmas time, it’s safe to say that I can expect something within those topics of interest.

In the web industry, I often shifted my topics of interest and as I talked about those new interests, I would gain a following within that new sphere. Over more than a decade, some people knew me as a designer, some knew me as a JavaScript developer, some as a CSS developer, some as a PHP developer, and maybe some even knew me as an ASP or ColdFusion developer.

Getting pigeon-holed as one particular thing often made me uncomfortable because I didn’t feel seen. My skill set is much broader and being called “just” anything felt constricting. Shifting my focus publicly reflected my different personal interests while ensuring an expanding broader audience (and maybe bring some people along for the ride, too).

When I went to work at Abstract, I had already started to step out of the limelight and wanted to avoid management and mentoring. I really just wanted a to-do list and quietly contribute. And yet, I was getting pigeon-holed into that mentorship and guidance role. Come employee review time, the one thing my co-workers requested was more of my opinion on architectural things.

There are benefits to being known for one thing. In our industry, some focus on just Node or Ruby or CSS or Design Systems. And as long as those topics are relevant, and you’re still enjoying it, the work can pour in. (Obvious caveats around marketing and economies, and so on.) I don’t doubt that my being known for one thing helped my employment.

Just be U

I’ve always enjoyed being more of a generalist while having a deep understanding of a number of topics—something I referred to as being U shaped instead of T shaped.

Know it all, or know one thing. Lead an industry in the limelight, or persist in a quiet career. Burn the candle at both ends, or slow and steady. Any and all are completely okay. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to have a career.

While I enjoy one thing today, who knows what might capture my interest tomorrow… (Cracks open Xcode)

Published March 04, 2024
Categorized as Personal
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