How sticky are your labels?

(First published in "The Right Thing To Do?" 9th August)

As editor of "The Right Thing To Do?" I've tried to stay in the background but, due to a monumental workload elsewhere in recent weeks, I've failed to find a guest writer this week. So you've got me. Hope you don't mind.

As a subject I thought I'd look back at my own life and figure out what the most important lesson has been. And I reckon it's 'authenticity'. Whenever I've tried to be someone I'm not, I've ended up unhappy at best and stressed at worst.

The trouble is that companies quite often force you into these uncomfortable situations. And, without some kind of training – in management skills in my case before I secured my first managerial position – you either busk it and get away with it. Or you do what I did and try to satisfy everyone and end up so stressed my wife had to call a doctor. (I don't remember, but I was apparently banging my head against a wall at the time.)

Fortunately, I was able to resign fairly amicably and move on, to better things as it happened, but with some lessons learned in a very hard way. After that, instead of pretending I was some kind of superman, I tried to be more open and honest about things.

Sure, we have to pretend a bit. Some years later, when I became editor of a magazine, it was a massive departure for me. I didn't feel like an 'editor'. I lacked the authority of many of my writers. But I found that, because I had the label 'editor', people treated me like one and it took very little time to grow into the new role. One that was completely compatible with my skills, motivations and values.

Again, I was lucky. A fantastic publisher (Felix Dennis) gave me a wonderful feel for this new profession (I'd had a series of IT management jobs before largely switching to publishing) and, best of all, I was able to be 'me'.

How many people get that opportunity? How many people are labelled and feel obliged to live out those labels? 'Nerd', 'air head', 'superstar', 'disabled', 'tycoon', 'housewife' and so on. The only labels you need to conform to are those you choose for yourself. You have only one life and, while it might take courage to break free of the comfort of your label, if your inner self and your label are incompatible, you need to do something about it before the stress gets you.

If you want to hear and see someone who's learned this lesson in an astonishing and profound way, take a look at this TED video by Caroline Casey. She had two massive 'change moments' in her life, at 17 and at 26. The first threatened to bestow an accurate but unwelcome label on her, and her denial of it led to the second which was close to a breakdown. By then accepting what she was and acknowledging what she really wanted, she was able to perform what you and I might regard as miracles.

Enjoy!

 

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