what is your tool?

I’ve spent years trying to better explain “what I do” to strangers.  Only recently have I come up with a short and sweet phrase: “kind of like planning but at the community level.”  People finally seem satisfied when I say these words.

I used to get lost in the buzzwords like “innovation,” “design thinking,” or “social impact.”  I thought people needed to hear these words to understand where I was coming from.  Instead it just confused people.  It sounded arrogant as soon as it left my lips.  I was against using jargon, yet I didn’t think my words counted.

I also believed that what I was doing was completely uncharted territory and thought others would be enticed by the chance to be the first to hear about it.  First off, it was not new necessarily.  Secondly, being new is not often exciting for others – it’s usually scary and risky.

If you, like me, have trouble explaining “what you do” these tips might help, especially if you’re working in intersecting disciplines.

Your discipline. Even if it is a “new” invention, service or idea – it doesn’t matter.  What can’t be new is how you connect it back to the person you’re talking to.  This has to be familiar and relatable.  So pick something established they know and deviate from there.  For me, the discipline most similar to the area I’m working in is planning.  For some, it might be what you spent your money on.

Once you find 1) a discipline for people to relate to, there are some helpful add-ons:
2) You work on this “discipline” with a unique tool.
3) You view this “discipline” through a unique lens.
4) You have some underlying values that drive your decisions using that tool, lens, and discipline.

Let’s go through these add-ons.

Your tool.  You can pick from many tools to use, but you’ll likely choose the one in which you have hard skills.  It’s a bit more process-oriented than a discipline.  For me, it’s design.  But it could be practicing law, writing, or performing.  These skills could change over time.  (Possibly the process or the “how”)

Your lens.  Your perspective and world view is unique to your experience and influences.  No one’s is the same.  Completing the sentence “We are … ” is a good indicator of your lens.  “Makers,” “dreamers,” “critics,” “activists,” and “networkers” are all possibilities – it just can’t be connected to a discipline.  I consider myself and my team “system-thinkers.”  (Possibly the approach, the road, the framework, the “which” as in which world view do you take)

Your underlying values.  Granted there is some overlap here, but your core values drive all of the above.  The decisions, questions, and answers that arise within your discipline, using your tool, and focusing your perspective are all adjusted to fit your underlying values.  It’s the overarching framework through which you apply all of these things.  It’s often the common thread between all of your meaningful projects.  It could be freedom, struggle, community, human connection, identity, oppression, happiness, discrimination, or creativity.  (Possibly the mission, destination, the “why”)

Here’s an overly complicated metaphor!  Picture yourself, with your own perspective, driving a vehicle.  This vehicle is could be a car or a skateboard or a boat, but it’s the discipline that you’ve invested in.   You’re driving on a path, one that you picked even though there are other paths to choose from.  This path headed toward some ultimate destination, representing your values.  And you are taking in the whole journey through a tool that you are holding or wielding.  Maybe it’s a journal or a camera or your own two hands.

This may not help everyone clarify the “what do you do” question, but I hope it can help some.


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