We pigeonhole ourselves by our job title. It makes conversation go quicker, but plays hell with our ability to manage our external image.

I just attended a conference where each name tag had our name and the name of our company. I don’t really have a company name at the moment, other than “Stever Robbins, Inc.” Since that would look weird, I had them put “Just ask…” in the slot reserved for company name.

Some people said, “‘Just Ask?’ I’ve heard of you. Aren’t you some kind of web search engine.” No. I’m not.

Some people said, “What am I supposed to ask?” I thought that was a fine question, and we jumped right into fascinating—if self-referential—conversation.

One woman stands out, however. She said, “Why did you write that on your name tag?” “Because right now what I do doesn’t fit into any neat box and I didn’t want people to leap to assumptions and pigeonhole me in the wrong box.”

Amazingly, she then  ran down her mental list of boxes and tried to fit me in one: Are you a marketing person? No. Are you running a startup? No. Are you a musician? No. When that failed, she rolled her eyes and went on to the next person. Happily, his job title fit neatly into a box and she was able to resume her networking rhythm. What never seemed to occur to her was asking me, “How do you spend your time?” (A question that evokes much more interesting responses than “What do you do for a living?”) That would have led to a real answer. But even then, a real answer sometimes didn’t work. I’m not really doing anything that gives people a good hook to relate to:

Them: What are you doing right now?
Me: Preparing to promote my book on personal productivity.”
Them: Oh. That sounds very interesting. Have you ever read The Four-Hour Work Week? I love Tim Ferriss.
Me: Well, I …
Them: looking over my shoulder Oh, look! There’s someone who has a real job. I’m going to go talk to them. Bye, now.

The next evening at dinner, a young man sat down at our table at dinner and introduced himself. It was, of course, Tim Ferriss. We had a lovely conversation about body-building, self-hypnosis, allergies, and the mind-body interface. We never once discussed personal productivity.

Boxes and pigeonholes

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