I remember the day I got my first pair of Guess jeans. They were skinny, acid-wash with zippers at the ankles: cute and a total knock off. But at 16, that didn’t matter. It was all about that little triangle on the pocket. You know which one I mean. Back then, I was a major geek living in the O.C., and it was all about the label. It defined you. Wearing Guess? Trendy and cool. Members Only? Prepster with rich parents. Listened to KROQ? Edgy and alternative. Labels – whether right or wrong – helped our teenage selves quickly assess a person or situation and make a judgment call. That fake pair of “Guess” jeans was my ticket to the cool club.
Fast forward to the adult years. As we get older, labels change. They become more about organization. Time savings. Streamlining. Efficiency. We label boxes, folders and storage drawers. Heck, I even know a guy that labels his hangers. Labels seem to make life easier.
But lately, I’ve been worried. You see, my little guy has had a few tough days at school. He’s one of the most loving and insightful kids you could ever meet, wicked smart and singularly focused. He knows he’s different, in whatever way he means. He’s also “vertically challenged.” Last night, he came to me crying because he didn’t “want to be small.” He’s begun acting out a little, trying to control the only things he can in an uncontrollable world. And it hurts, because this is not who he truly is. We worry. What if he gets labeled as a “bad” kid, the one who misbehaves? Things like that can follow someone for a lifetime. We’re advocating, collaborating, documenting – doing what we need to do to make sure our son is supported, safe and happy in his own skin. We want so desperately for people to see the boy who is insecure right now, but who says the most tender things, who’s intuitive beyond his years and who gently cares for those who are sad or cannot speak for themselves. We want them to see the real Luke.
People use labels at the office too. There’s the top 10% who do 90% of the work. The high performers. The “rockstars.” The “low hanging fruit”. The “C players.” These labels – these generalizations – get assigned to people, sometimes by virtue of past performance. Sometimes not. And once assigned, they often become self-fulfilling prophesies. People begin to mold themselves to meet others’ expectations, instead of challenging the assumptions, busting down walls and kicking some *ss. The winners win more and the rest get stuck.
We label ourselves. We’re serious or a joker. Young. Old. Tomboy. Girly girl. Life of the party. Loner. Successful. Has been. Frankly, sometimes we’re downright cruel. These words play over and over inside our heads, programming our mind and beating down our soul. And sooner or later, regardless of what the truth may be, when we look in the mirror, our own labels stick. They’re no ticket to the cool club, and they don’t make life easier. They drag you down. Those other winners win more, and you just get stuck.
It’s time to let go of your labels. Forget the voice in your head. It’s dead wrong. You are powerful. Magnificent. You’re a once in a zillion miracle who will never be again. Own that. It’s pretty freaking awesome.
If you lead people at work, they’re miracles too. Each one of them has greatness hidden inside of them. It’s up to you to help them bring it out. Get at it, figure it out or just move on. A failing department is led by a failing manager. A leader finds the path, teaches and lights the road along the way. Then it’s up to your people to take that step.
And as for your children? Fill them with love. Yes, they may be different, but different is great. They’re once in a lifetime. Of course they are different. They may feel small, but they are giants in our hearts. They may not listen, but they will hear.
My son is an awesome, funny, creative, brilliant, mischievous, bull-headed little sprite, and no matter what happens, my husband and I will have our son’s back. I will drag his butt off the field if he misbehaves and hold him close when he realizes why I did it. I will guard his heart and his innocence as much as I can. I will make administrators crazy, rattle cages and raise holy heck if that’s what I need to do to make sure my little guy isn’t just another label. He’s no label. He’s so much more.
So are you.