During mentoring and coaching others through the years I have come across an extremely simple phenomenon that has far reaching effects. I observe it within myself too and this short article is to help you identify and handle it effectively for your personal growth.
Starts at Childbirth
When it comes to raising humans from childbirth, one simple idea that I try to propagate is “don’t label the child, label the action”. My parents are incredibly yogic in their ways and I do not remember them ever telling any of their four children “you are a naughty child” or “you are awesome”. Admonishment or praise was for an action and so “that was a silly thing to do” or “that was very well done” was much more common. They did not read books on child-raising in the 60s, but are, fortunately, gifted with incredible wisdom.
Labelling is Human Nature
It is natural for you as a human to label – label just about everything – even to slot someone you’ve just met for 5 seconds into a category. It happens automatically. It is a natural survival mechanism of our successful evolution – to separate the poisonous berries from the safe ones, to judge what animal will prey on you versus what you can hunt to eat.
Unfortunately, the natural tendency to label yourself often ends up limiting your growth. It is bad enough when others do it to you from a young age and perhaps you cannot do much to stop that. But what can often be worse is self-labelling. Associating yourself with a label is also natural, driven, perhaps, by a desire to understand oneself and have self-identity. But, even the labels that are supposedly good, taken beyond reasonable levels, often limit you. Intrigued? Read on…
Don’t Ignore the Beast
Since labelling is a natural phenomenon, to advise you “don’t ever label” is foolish. Being aware of the limitations of labelling is what I would like you to be aware of. It started right from the day you were born, and will carry on, well, forever! It is ubiquitous, so having made you aware of it, you will start noticing it just about everywhere. And it is insidious, so you should not ignore it or treat it lightly.
The list of examples of labelling is endless. I shall talk you through a handful where I will show you the subtle ways in which each can have an impact that is often negative.
Labelling in Daily Life
Teacher to your 5 year old child – “you are a naughty boy” – does your innocent child separate his action from his personality? Is it healthy for your child to think of himself as being anti-social? Wouldn’t “you are capable of so much good, why such naughty behaviour?” create a better outcome including positive introspection by the child?
Child overhears their mother telling a friend – “my daughter is great at art, but she struggles at maths”. Here, it’s just the current ability that is being labelled but what often happens is that the child gets better at art as the years progress, and she has an increasingly negative attitude towards maths. How about if the mother had been overheard saying “…and she’s improving noticeably in maths”? Perhaps the child would have taken the “maths label” on more positively?
Head trader to new MBA grad on trading desk – “oh, you can do programming?? cool, then you can…”. The super-bright grad then begins to hide the fact that he has this invaluable skill because he will get slotted into geekier roles in the future that he might be good at but does not want to do. Did the head trader consider that the smart kid on the desk can easily handle 12 variables in his head when making a trading decision compared to his own 6?
“You’re a medical surgeon, why on earth would you waste time doing a Maths degree for fun?” is typical of the type of comment that makes most people in the city of Mumbai, where I spend a chunk of my time, quite homogenous in their aspirations. For a city with incredible ethnic diversity, diversity in aspiration has been fairly limited. Things are changing for the good, more diversity in people’s life goals, but there’s still a lot of resistance to the idea that someone can be good and enjoy two apparently very different things. Why label and limit yourself and others?
“I’m terrible at … (you fill in the blank)” – as soon as you say this, you have a label on yourself that reduces the likelihood of growth in that area. Compare that with “I could be better at … with deliberate practice”. Might that instill a healthier approach to the challenge?
“I hate going to the gym, I prefer outdoor workouts” – I hear this being said for a variety of reasons. More often than not it’s because the person had a poorly qualified trainer and a painful experience with strength training, or because they are lazy when it comes to exercise and they see the gym as hard work. In any case, the “hate labelling” closes the person’s mind to an incredible life-changing experience. Remember, there’s a reason our parents told us “don’t use strong words like ‘hate’ loosely”.
“I’m an ultra distance runner” sounds like a cool label to give yourself. If you dig deeper, you will find that among many recreational runners, the escape from improving the quality of one’s training runs to quantity (high mileage) is a way out of the more difficult disciplined focus on the quality of runs. This, in time, leads to injuries, time-out from running, and a host of other non-positive issues…The anchoring on the self-labelling creates wilful blindness. Might a race like this one that requires you to use your brain before you use your legs be better for your development as a runner? As with anything, perhaps before we do a lot of something, we should first learn to do it well.
Big Picture Blindness
“I’m a star employee” is such lovely positive label. But what happens when it takes on a size out of proportion with reasonable balanced living? Does your child really care that you won “manager of the year” or would she have preferred an evening game of badminton with you? Always remember, never forget… no one on their deathbed wishes they had spent an extra hour in the office!
I could go on, but you will, for the rest of today and hopefully beyond, notice similar examples cropping up in your interaction with others and with conversations with yourself. I hope these few off-the-cuff examples give you a better handle on how to spot the beast I call “Labels”. Tame it or become its prey…let them not be limiting labels!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.