The Weight Of Titles (Reflecting On 2013)

I grew up thinking “titles” were important. Titles have authority. In college, they want you to create a resume. Your titles there matter. Sometimes, titles matter internally because of salary grades, or reporting structures; at other times, titles matter externally because part of one’s job requires others to perceive someone in some particular fashion. Titles also matter because they can help one get their next job. For me, however, I’ve never really accumulated any titles worth trumpeting. That’s not to say I didn’t try to get titles — I most certainly did — but for whatever reason, I never attained them. This used to bother me for a while, not being able to explain what I do, or being able to fit my work into a LinkedIn profile…but then all of a sudden, it didn’t. I gave up trying to explain what I do, and if someone happened to ask, I crafted a short, pithy description and left it at that.

This past year, I caved in a bit and modified my Twitter bio to reflect what I do, or rather, what I aspire to do. A Twitter bio is important to me because that’s the main network I use for information and communication (besides email). I’ll explain my thinking below, and if you happen to read this, please do click on the links provided — it brings this all together over time. After some trial and error, I settled on the following bio for my Twitter profile:

operator. writer. investor.

Yet…while these are aspirational to a degree, and while I may engage in these activities, I do not feel like I deserve those titles, even though I conveniently gave them to myself. With “operator,” that title hits close to home because for a while when I first moved to the Valley, people just assumed that because I discussed strategy *before* getting into operational details that I was more strategic than operational. This always baffled me about Silicon Valley. For better or worse, I’m the type of person that likes to survey options and then proceed down a path. I do not believe execution can come before strategy. Thankfully, the founders of Swell agreed that a mix of strategy paired with execution would be valuable and invited me to get more and more involved with the company. They’ve graciously given me the chance to be involved in strategic decisions and to execute alongside my colleagues. I can assure you the word “operator” gets thrown around here too casually. Operational experience is important, but some people add value in different ways, and many of those actions are operational in nature, as well — perhaps just not in the parlance that some people deem most important. All this said, I may call myself and operator, and that is what I do, but it doesn’t feel like it…yet.

For years, many people assumed I was a full-time “writer.” Wrong. I can see how one may think that, however. I have never been a full-time writer. Ever. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky to become the most consistent, long-term columnist that TechCrunch has ever had. It’s a lot of fun to write a weekly column. I also blog a lot here, but not every day. I usually write on weekends when a bunch of my thoughts have accumulated and need to be put out there. Because of this perception, people assumed I was just a full-time writer or journalist, and from that assumption, inferred that was all I could do. That really bothered me, primarily because the only reason I was able to write about stuff is because I was observing what I saw in the field while working. Anyone can just sit behind a desk and bang out words based on other posts, or press releases — I was trying to put my original ideas out into the public square and hope that someone else saw things similarly, or completely differently. I write about technology, startups, and investing in order to connect with others who are potentially like-minded. But, sure, I’m a writer. I enjoy it. I need to write to process information, and I enjoy getting feedback on these posts. So while I finally feel comfortable calling myself a “writer,” and that is what I do, it still doesn’t feel like it…yet.

Giving myself the title of “investor” was a bit presumptuous. Investing is something I’d always wanted to do, but struggled in getting started. I always enjoyed researching and trading public stocks (and still do), but investing in private companies is really hard. This is something I’m going to write more about in 2014. People assume this stuff is mindless or so easy, especially what folks do at larger firms. The reality is that it’s very hard, and people need to better understand why. Anyway, this year I was able to start a small fund and, as the sole GP in the fund, I get to be the “investor.” Right now, it’s small potatoes, but it’s deliberate. I’m testing a number of hypotheses about investing (not market-related) and am excited to share my next plan in Q1 of 2014. So, yeah, on paper, and legally, I’m technically now an “investor,” and while that is what i do, it still doesn’t feel like it…yet.

Finally, I gained a new title this year that’s not on my Twitter bio: “Father.” It is the most important title of all, and comes with big responsibilities. It’s something I wasn’t sure would happen, and then, all of a sudden, it did, and life changed. It is a real fortune and privilege, no doubt, to be the father of a little girl. She’s just turned about 8 months old, and while she’s getting more interactive by the day, crawling around, trying to stand up (not quite yet), and testing out her vocal chords, my main activity and responsibility is to help my wife and make sure she’s in a good space to care for our daughter. Of course, I get some direct play time with her as well, but it’s not the same. I’m sure it will change as she gets older, and starts walking and talking, and becomes more interactive, because right now, I don’t feel like I’m a dad. Technically, I’m a “father,” and I do dad-things, but it still doesn’t feel like it…yet.

Titles come to define us, especially in work. Some titles are given to us, and for the rest, we give them to ourselves. And, while it’s certainly a privilege to get to call myself whatever I want to, the reality is I don’t feel like I’ve earned those titles yet. Sure, I can use them for now, and no one will care, but when you strip away the veneer and examine the words closely for their true meaning, and you see other people doing those things at a higher level, it becomes apparent that I’m perhaps on a path to earning these titles one day, and there is a long way to go. This is the reality that drives me, a sense that I can never take comfort when there’s more work to do, and paths for me to carve out for myself. There’s a fine line between feeling confident about these things (which I do) yet simultaneously paranoid that it can all evaporate in the absence of a real strong foundation. It’s continually assessing where I am on the terrain, and making sure I find the right hills to climb — both in work and in my personal life. Titles, conversely, have weight, and they can hold us back, confine what we do, and potentially lower any possible maxima. Therefore, as 2014 is upon me, I’m excited to continue my slow ascent along these various hills, and hopefully find new ones as the future unfolds.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus