Self-Employed Job Title Dilemma

November 15, 2010

Please welcome another composite fictional character, here to illustrate a point. Her name is Tabitha, and she is struggling to explain to people what it is that she actually does.

“So, Tabitha, what do you do?”

“I help people keep their teeth healthy so they can have them for a long time, hopefully their whole lives.”

“So you’re sort of a tooth health expert? What do you do, teaching and stuff?”

“Well, yes, part of my time with clients I spend educating and training them, but I also check out their teeth and make sure they’re okay.”

“Like a tooth health consultant?”

“Kind of. But it’s not just that. If people have problems with their gums I can do interventions.”

“So you specialize in gum health?”

“Well, not just that. If someone has a cavity I have some specialized tools and a system I follow to fix that kind of problem.”

“Oh, cool. You also fix tooth problems? Any kind?”

“Well, some tooth problems are so bad there’s nothing left to do but take the tooth out.”

“You do that, too?”

“Yes. In fact it’s one of my specialties. I can replace an extracted tooth with an artificial one. I can replace a full set of teeth, too, with permanent implants or removable appliances.”

You’ve figured out that Tabitha is a dentist. Tabitha’s dilemma is completely fabricated to make the point. Established fields and professions may include a lot of different skills and abilities and comprise a variety of specialties. But all of that is recognized and understood in the career title.

The more individualized your business is – the more unique your work is – the more you have to explain it for people to understand it, because you have created something that didn’t exist before. But… does everyone have to understand it? Can you come up with a “close enough” title for those situations like the ones I mentioned in my last post about answering, “What do you do?”

I train people, individually and in groups and occasionally in live presentations. I teach about things like finding your calling, designing an authentic life with meaningful work, and marketing for self-employment newbies. I also act as a consultant, suggesting steps people can take. Sometimes I coach people, helping them discover answers and choices that are right for them and helping them adapt information to their own situations. Overall, I mentor people in a broad sense. I see their potential and what they can do, understanding where they are and where they want to go and how to create the path to get there. I also write articles and blog posts and training programs that can become books or workbooks.

When people who are familiar with coaching hear me describe what I do, they say, “Oh, you’re a coach.” I resist that snapshot because I do a lot more than coaching, which I see as just one skill set I use in my work. But most coaches do a lot more than coaching, so it fits pretty well.

Sometimes people familiar with coaching even say, “You’re a life coach.” I recoil from that one because I’m not sure what understanding they have of life coaching. Some of my favorite people are life coaches and happily present themselves that way. Their definition of life coach is a big part of what I do. We use positive psychology, an understanding of human development, plus a lot of communication skills to help people get clear about what they want to do with their lives, develop a plan, and start making it happen.

But it’s pretty common to find someone who is an energy field consultant, astrologer, macrobiotic nutritionist, and Divine Feminine priestess, while also being a life coach. The same person will list all those roles on one web site.

I am definitely not that kind of life coach. I think people who are metaphysical and explore new age spirituality deserve to have people who understand and embrace their view of the world to coach them and guide them, incorporating all those approaches.

But that’s not what I do! I’m concerned that, since the title “life coach” isn’t well-defined and clearly understood, I may mean “personal development guide” but be misunderstood as “new age spiritualist.”

Sometimes I default to saying, “I’m a creative career and small business design coach.” Sure, I do a lot of things not included in that image, but it gets the main idea. And it’s pretty clear I’m not doing anything metaphysical. Sometimes I shorten it to “I’m a self-employment coach.” That implies I might help with things I don’t really do, like home office set-up or contract negotiations. It also leaves out the core of my work: helping people to get clear about their natural gifts and to find ways to develop and express them; showing them that purpose, meaning, and enjoyment in work flow from using their gifts; and guiding them in designing a life that aligns with their gifts and their deepest values. What sort of job title says that?

Do you struggle with this? Is there a title that is understood that seems pretty close to what you actually do that you use for convenience?

Or, as I wrote about in my example of different kinds of singers, is there a title that seems really close to what you do, but in fact is so different that it causes people to misunderstand your work? Are other people quick to put your work in a related category, but by doing so they wind up with a wrong idea of what you do?

How do you help other people “get” what you do, and how do you decide when it just doesn’t matter?


5 Responses to “Self-Employed Job Title Dilemma”

  1. Gayle on November 16th, 2010 12:47 pm

    Boy this resonated with me!
    Sometime I say, “I help people live their best lives.” That usually provokes a smile and question ( “How do you do that?”) or the dreaded response, “Oh so you’re a life coach” at which point they move on to something else….
    Your blog has reminded me to keep experimenting!

  2. Steve Coxsey on November 16th, 2010 2:25 pm

    I’m also looking for ways to respond to “You’re a life coach.” I think I’ll try responses that keep the conversation going, like asking the person what he or she knows about life coaching.

  3. Sharon Raden on December 1st, 2010 11:41 am

    Steve, it makes me feel better to know that others are struggling with the same issue.

    Like you and Gayle when I describe what I do (which is very similar to you Steve) I get the, “Oh, you’re a life coach” response.

    I like your idea of continuing the conversation by asking what they know about life coaching. Your post also got me thinking that rather than try to distinguish how I’m not exactly a life coach, I could say, “yes and I specifically focus on….”.

    I hope you’ll let us know If you ever find the right answer for “what do you do?”. I know there are a lot of us out here who would benefit from it.

  4. Steve Coxsey on December 1st, 2010 12:44 pm

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving your thoughtful comment, Sharon. I think this question is like the jigsaw puzzle set up on a card table in some people’s homes. They place a piece as they pass by, spend time with it trying pieces in different places, and get comfortable with the idea some projects take time and “new eyes.”

  5. Auntie Smackdown : Twisting Road on March 3rd, 2011 5:03 pm

    […] I wrote about clarity for self-employed people describing what they do back in November. I regularly see lots of people struggling with this and I thought it was sad that they couldn’t see it and didn’t know what the problem was. Now I’m extending a little more compassion… to all of us! […]

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