A label often offers a level of comfort, even for me. A label makes a situation seem simpler and straightforward; it creates an expectation, a connotation, it removes the discomfort that is often associated with the unknown. Labels have, thus far, played an important role in my world, both professionally and personally. From a simple job title at work, which is essentially a label that gives you an idea of what a job entails to something as common as food labels. However, labeling more complex things ushers us into dangerous territory – consider the need for differentiation between similar products, which creates a slew of sub-labels. A prime example is the phone; we began with the telephone, then the cellular phone, then the smart phone. Then the need to differentiate between smartphones led us to the labels iPhone and the Android. These labels conjure up specific connotations, and we are constantly creating subcategories to ensure the correct connotations are being generated by the label. However, the more complex and sophisticated something is, the more information the label needs to be able to communicate and that’s where we encounter a problem: How can we attempt to accurately label some of the most complex and sophisticated things in the world, people?
The usage of labels for people automatically implies that there are a certain set of categories which people can fit into and that the people in each respective category are similar enough that the connotations, perceptions and preconceived notions of each label can categorically and accurately apply to each person in that group. How can a label accurately define or surmise who we are? Do you accept the notion that you are similar enough to an undefined number of people in the way you think, act, behave and present yourself?
Labels can communicate a lot about an object and there are people who take label-associations more seriously than others. A good example of the power of labeling is seen when we consider clothing. A clothing label is intended to communicate a lot about the company’s brand and often by choosing to wear a specific brand we are choosing to associate ourselves with the image that company projects, either consciously or by accident. A label communicates the quality, originality and functionality of a brand, its image. As a motorcyclist, the label I often choose to associate myself with is Harley Davidson. Associating and identifying with labels can be fine with respect to something as simple and functional as clothing, sporting brands, music genres, etc. For me, the real issues arise when we begin to use labels when discussing behavior and personality types because it takes us into the dangerous territory of pigeonholing people. By categorizing individuals with labels, we are encouraging the perspective that those people are only capable of undertaking and accomplishing the roles, responsibilities that are associated with that specific label.
At one part at the start of my career I began working at a company that invested in me and in an effort to best utilize my skills, the company wanted to figure out exactly what type of person I was so they could place me accordingly, essentially, they wanted to label me and use me accordingly in said category. It began with a questionnaire that I, along with a group of my colleagues, were sent to complete. After my colleagues and I had all completed the questionnaire which was geared toward unraveling our potential, I attended a training course, eager to hear the feedback and the results of the report.
My report was long-winded but essentially boiled down to the following: “Mark, you are Analytical.” At the time, it made sense; the description in the report was applicable to many aspects of my personality, I could see the indications, yes, I am frequently introverted, I like structure and facts and figures. While there were aspects of the feedback that made me uncomfortable, on the whole the conclusion seemed valid. As a result of the questionnaire, at an early stage in my career, I was labeled and consequentially placed into a box, and a box has a lid, it’s height is limited. In retrospect, I now see that labeling me propagated the notion that the label was my niche and should, therefore, be my area of focus professionally. I recognized, relied on and played to that one strength more so than any of my others. Years later, I began to uncover and utilize different strengths, I also began reusing and developing skills that I had placed on the backburner and labeled as “secondary” or “unnecessary”. My professional life was revitalized by that discovery and had I previously known that diversifying my skill set could lead to a slew of new or varied professional possibilities, roles and responsibilities, I would have distanced myself from the label the second I saw the questionnaire.
Labels can limit and disable people’s personal performance and improvement but developments in the field of neuroscience have granted us more information, allowing us to have a greater understanding of self which we can utilize to achieve professional and personal success. Neuroscience helps us understand how the brain marshals billions of cells which produce our behavior and understanding how those cells are influenced by the environment. Self-awareness is an incredibly powerful tool in the process of navigating both educational and career choices, from which degree to choose to workplace hurdles and transitions. Labels are no longer relevant due to the realities of the shifting landscape of the workplace.
The advances in neuroscience have made it clear that behavior is brain driven and despite the fact that each of our brains is tremendously similar (in structure, matter, design, etc.), our behavior still differs dramatically. We have unique abilities, talents, hobbies, desires, hopes, dreams, fears – the list goes on. Due to the brain’s sheer complexity, it seems clear that categorizing mankind through any set of labels which tries to define them as X, Y or Z cannot yield accurate definitions and associations, and we should respond to this realization by removing the need for labels in general.
Each of us has our own perspective of the world and we also have our own ways of responding to the world around us. Our recurring responses, which are both learned and inherited, eventually create response patterns and those patterns are what we refer to as our behavior preferences. Our behaviors change in response to external stimuli, i.e., our behavior changes depending on the circumstance as we can, and often do, modify our behavior based on the type of situation we are in.
I often alter my behavior accordingly, and that ability has allowed me to flourish professionally while allowing me to maintain a healthy mental space. I can choose to be extraverted and demonstrative, harnessing my outgoing side and I can choose to utilize the various necessary soft skills that business relationships are often reliant upon. In other situations, I can be introverted and internalize my thoughts and feelings more, which gives me the time to harness my more creative skills such as thinking, writing, creating – all skills that, for me, are directly interlaced with my introverted side.
Developing our understanding of behavior preferences and response patterns can generate a tremendous amount of self-awareness and it can help us understand how we are perceived by those around us. Consider, for example, how you would choose to describe a person if you were asked to use a single word, or even a single phrase? Chances are, the word or phrase you have chosen fails to encapsulate everything that individual has to offer, not only professionally but even simply in their day-to-day lives. Knowing how limiting using labels can be, we need to eliminate the use of those same limiting descriptors when searching for the information we need to aid us in the process of making important career planning and recruitment decisions.
We often overlook that each of us is, individually, as complicated as the world we live in is, and through advances in neuroscience, psychology and technology, we have more access to information about the human brain and behavior now than we have ever had in the past. That information can help us better understand our preferences and avoid the limitations created by the unnecessary use of labels. An increased self-awareness of your preferences can shape your future by helping you choose the correct field of study and helping you forge a successful career that suits your own unique requirements. Labels belong on our laptops, our clothes, our medicines and our food. Don’t let anyone decide it’s your turn to be labeled. Don’t let anyone decide what your future should look like.