The Tyranny of Job Titles: From Vanity Growth to Personal Growth

When I started working at Google, I was quickly introduced to the job ladder that has since become pervasive in the tech industry. Depending on your first job there, you get assigned to a particular ladder, with fixed accomplishments to demonstrate in order to climb to the next level.

For example, in marketing, you are an Associate Product Marketing Manager at level 3, then a Product Marketing Manager at level 4. In engineering, you become a Senior Software Engineer at level 5, then a Staff Software Engineer at level 6, etc.

Each level comes with a detailed performance rubric to assess whether or not you’re ready to be promoted. The whole promotion process is designed around these rubrics. They’re like a checklist of accomplishments you need to demonstrate to your manager and to your peers.

The problem with rubrics – beside the fact that many are badly designed – is that they encourage fitting a mold that doesn’t evolve with the ever-changing demands of work. People end up doing what will look good rather than what’s actually good.

The invisible ladders driving our lives

We unconsciously apply unofficial rubrics in many areas of our lives. Going to a good school, working for a well-known company, getting recognised for our work through awards and other industry accolades, dating a person we know our friends will like, attending events everyone is going to.

It’s as if each part of our lives came with mini-ladders to climb; checklists of things to do in order to grow.

Job titles are just the most visible ladder of them all. It’s interesting that pompous executive job titles were invented during the Victorian era. This is when we started the trend of calling a cleaner a hygiene technician. A bin man became a waste management and disposal technician. Later on, a call-center worker became a communications executive.

“In the nineteenth century, individuals began to assume some often outlandish and fantastic-sounding job titles. One obvious reason was to make them stand out from the crowd. Assuming a highfalutin job or product title made sometimes boring jobs leap off the page.” — Dr Alun Withey, Historian at the University of Exeter.

And this is what most job titles are about: validating who we are without having to explain what we do. In fact, a survey of 1,500 office workers found that a shocking 70% would take a better job title over an increase in salary.

This shows a profound disconnect between the emphasis people place on the value they bring to a company and how they want to be perceived within that company. It also indicates a focus on progression driven by vanity rather than actual personal growth.

From vanity growth to personal growth

Founders who run startups are often being warned about vanity metrics. Vanity metrics are metrics that make you look good to others but don’t actually help you grow in a meaningful way. In business, vanity metrics include registered users, social media likes, and page views. Actionable metrics include active users and paying customers.

In life, vanity metrics are those shiny medals we collect to make ourselves look good to others, such as job titles, impressive companies, or awards. Actionable life metrics, in contrast, provide an actual reflection of your personal growth.

Actionable life metrics are based on questions such as: Are you actually better at what you do than you were a few months ago? Did you learn something new or acquire a new skill? Regardless of your new job title, are you actually becoming a better human being?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of vanity growth when everyone around you is chasing a better job title. Here are a few ways you can ensure you’re focusing on personal growth rather than vanity growth:

  • Reflect on your progress. While job titles are fixed, your daily accomplishments are not. Writing every day to think about what you actually did today that made you a better version of yourself is a great exercise to ensure you focus on the right things. Journaling is a powerful tool to add to your mental gym.
  • Conduct personal experiments. Making a pact with yourself to learn something new is one of the simplest and most actionable ways to foster personal growth. This could be mastering a new skill or a new topic, or regularly meeting new people. I wrote more about designing personal experiments if you want to try it for yourself.
  • Surround yourself with fellow curious minds. It’s hard to hide behind a job title when you’re chatting with smart people. Challenging conversations are also an excellent way to drive your personal growth beyond job titles. Make sure to spend time with curious minds who will question your knowledge and your skills in a constructive way.
  • Rewrite your bio. A few years ago, my bio read something like this: “Ex-Global Marketing Lead at Google. Founder in Residence at Entrepreneur First. Venture Scout for Backed VC” – a collection of recognisable tech brands I had been associated with. This is the most common approach to describing ourselves. Instead, try stating what you’re currently working on and the topics you enjoy talking about.

Of course, you should be proud of your progress at work and being promoted is a great ego boost and recognition of your contributions. Just make sure that your personal growth matches the visible progression demonstrated by your position on the job ladder.

Most successful people are not described by the role they have within a company. They are celebrated in terms of what they have actually accomplished.

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