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I’m a CEO. She’s a Talent Acquisition Specialist. They are 49th dan black belts. He’s an ABC LMT with an MBA and a PhD. How proud do you feel when someone asks you what you do and you can answer with a C-suite title, really cool moniker, or your name followed by alphabet soup? You almost feel accomplished already and you just got the job yesterday! Once you have the business card, it’s all downhill from there, right? It’s not as if your title (and the career attached to it) can disappear as fast as you created it, can it?
The Dirt: It’s all about status / my title
Did you know the term Mister used to have a higher honorific meaning used for those of a particular high respect or knighthood, originally derived from the term Master? Many moons ago, you could be a man but not have the right to be called a Mister. Today, we give such honor to any man, deserving of it or not. How many men do you know today would have earned the right to this title, as it relates to mastery? How many men today can claim to elicit the courage, honesty, integrity, and chivalry bestowed by this title?
Isn’t it interesting how crazy we can get over acquiring a title? As kids, it’s not uncommon to get tonsilitis. As adults, we often come down with title-itis. It’s that belief we were sold that makes us want to once again keep up with the proverbial Joneses’, even at the expense of our family’s well-being. It’s what lures us into the ironically-named ‘safe and secure’ job, when we know deep down that no title will support our family once the layoffs begin. It’s the flash of respect we demand, whether or not we’ve earned it, anything less causing our fragile nature to fall to pieces.
“Having an unearned and unwarranted title is like leading a Ponzi scheme that entices upfront, but destroys lives in the aftermath. It’s fraudulent and tragic.”
What is the value of a title anyways? In a world where money isn’t everything, but it’s as important as oxygen to live (if you disagree, don’t show up to your job or business for the next year), what is a title worth? What would happen if you took your title to the bank and tried to deposit it? Surely, there would be an exchange of pleasantries until they saw your bank account.
Aren’t we just one downsize, right-size, outsource, or downturn away from a title change to ‘Unemployed’ or ‘Out of Business’?
What’s the value of a black belt in the martial arts if you cannot calmly and competently defend yourself or your family from harm? What’s the value of a college degree if you cannot think for yourself and apply your skills to solving a problem? How about the value of a C-suite executive name plaque if your lack of leadership drives the company into the ground, causing the layoff of thousands of employees?
Can you see that titles are intrinsically worthless? It is only the person behind the title that has value. The title is only but an introduction to share your worth and help others benefit from your craft. If you cannot live up to the introduction, then you are a fraud. Having an unearned and unwarranted title is like leading a Ponzi scheme that entices upfront, but destroys lives in the aftermath. It’s fraudulent and tragic.
Perhaps our biggest driver towards title-itis is ego. Ego is self-esteem or self-importance. There is a fine line between these two definitions, with one based in confidence and the other based in arrogance. Our ego often leads us to the latter and in doing so will keep us broke and unhappy. You can be right or you can be rich, but not both.
The value of a title comes from two sources:
- Earning it
- Taking responsibility for it.
Earning a status or title is the process of becoming the person worthy of the title. As we’ve discussed, anything short of earning the position is fraudulent, misleading, and devastating long-term to yourself and those around you. Assuming you don’t want to be that person, all that’s left is to put in the required work and develop the necessary competence.
Success in anything demands we pay the price upfront and in full. Taking the easiest path to get the degree, buying the black belt, or appointing yourself CEO of a worthless company may get you noticed. At first, this title will impress others. It might even get you the interview. But like painting over a bloody wall at a crime scene, your incompetence will eventually show through. You may fake it short-term, but long-term the truth will be known.
Sometimes this is innocuous like ‘Retail Jedi’ – what does that even mean? Sometimes it has serious consequences. Consider the “Master black belt” teaching you self-defense that doesn’t work, the “financial expert” that helps you lose half your retirement at age 62, or the “parent” who lets their neglected kids loose into society. The consequences of following a title and not a competent person can be anywhere from annoying to deadly.
Earning something gives us the right to keep it. It’s not a guarantee as we will see, but the process of learning and growing changes us as a person in a way that we never have to start over. A good CEO can work for any company, regardless of product. A good parent can raise anyone’s children well, not just her own. Earning our identity, through successes and failures, is both the journey and result of a fulfilled life.
If earning it is how you get the title, then taking responsibility is how you keep the title. In fact, once you’ve earned the title, your work isn’t done. Rather, it’s just beginning. You now have the responsibility to continue to improve in your craft. Building competence may be one thing, but maintaining competence is another. Make no mistake, other people are working hard and a few are working harder. Thinking you’ve made it and relaxing is the kiss of death. It won’t be long before your are superseded and eventually obsolete and antiqued.
Your responsibility continues in sharing your expertise or craft. An expert insurance agent, licensed or not, who no longer helps his clients protect their family can no longer hold such a title. It would be misleading at best, devastating at worst, to continue under that guise. A teacher who doesn’t teach may still be a nice person, just not a teacher. There is a further responsibility to mentor others in your field. Whether or not you were born with an amazing talent for what you do, you had help along the way. Somebody influenced you in a positive way. Giving that blessing back by paying it forward.
Your final responsibility is to understand that you are an ambassador of your craft, a role model if you will. This is not a choice. A sports star or a parent is a role model; their only choice to be a good one or bad one. All titles associated with yours can be exalted or stained based on how you carry yourself. Not fulfilling the duties discussed here can have a devastating impact on the entire industry, family, or association. Why not follow the golden rule?
Parent is as much of a title as CEO, but let’s be clear. Procreation does not make you a parent anymore than owning a car makes you a mechanic. Parenting makes you a parent.
Cure for title-itis:
- Be humble, even if you must accept a title.
- Work relentlessly to become the person deserving of that title.
- Return to #1. It’s a process
The good news is the best titles are given, not taken. If we can focus on providing value to others and let the title fall where it may, what can stop us from achieving greatness? Let the title be implicit in everything we do and everything we are. Now we can focus on what’s really important, not just what looks important.
“When you’re good at something, you’ll tell everyone. When you’re great at something, they’ll tell you.”
— Walter Payton, NFL Hall of Famer
I challenge you to share this with three friends or family that are all go and no show. You just might save their lives! I appreciate each and every one of you. Meet you at the top, because the bottom’s way too crowded.