labels, categories, personal brand

You Don’t Need to Fit the Label

Nerds, jocks, emo kids—these are a few archetypal social groups in high school. These labels categorize students of similar characteristics, distinguishing the “cool kids,” for example, from those less popular.

But this doesn’t stop when we graduate high school. Throughout our lives, we must deal with ingroups versus outgroups. In each social setting, we seek either to fit in or to stand out. We are known, even defined, by our personal traits and affiliations—or more accurately, by others’ perception of them.

In this article, I’ll refer to these as labels. While some convey mere fact, others carry value judgments. Over time we may even internalize these beliefs and let them hold us back. This manifests in two ways.

Feeling Shut Out
The first is when you do not match the preferred label. Now this preference may be explicitly stated, or it may become evident through observation. For example, the job description may not require certain traits. But if most employees in the role share those attributes—whether in credentials or affiliation or even physical appearance—it can be argued that such a preference exists.

For an individual on the outside (that is, without the attribute), this can be discouraging. When we don’t match the preferred label—when we feel that we don’t belong, and therefore the chance of failure is high—we may not even try. Or we do so timidly, lacking the resolve and confidence required for success.

A few years ago, I ran for public office—a board of directors seat at the local healthcare district. Most candidates were in their 50s and 60s. I had just turned 28 at the time. So I felt that voters would think I was too young and inexperienced. When I shared this with a mentor, he challenged: “Did anyone tell you that?” He was right. My fear of others’ expectations had kept me from boldly pursuing my goal.

Now I am not saying that bias doesn’t exist. It certainly does. Be aware of it, but don’t write yourself off. Don’t preemptively reject yourself for not fitting in. If you don’t advocate for yourself, who will?

Feeling Shut In
The second problem is when you are known a certain way, so it’s difficult to change how others see you. People expect you to continue fitting the labels they associate with you. These labels may be positive. They may be ones you’ve given yourself. But suppose you want to change directions.

Think of popular recording artists. When they take a sudden departure from their usual sound, it’s often met with resistance from their original fans. They are labeled as sellouts who trade their artistry for mass appeal. In reality, they may simply be experimenting and pushing their own creative boundaries.

Whatever you do in life, there will be naysayers. Some people will think you are too bold, too reckless, too this, too that. They may voice their displeasure or offer unsolicited advice. But ultimately, it’s your life.

Your actions affect you infinitely more than your critics. They observe from a distance. You live your reality. You can redefine your brand. In fact, do anything long enough, and it becomes how you are known.

This is the seventh post in our series: Challenging Your Self-Limiting Assumptions.