Beyond Labels: Finding coherence by defying definitions and blurring boundaries

Let me paint you two composite characters.

Mike was born into a rich family in California – living on a house on a beach, attending an excellent school, unremarkably and comfortably mainstream in his upbringing. Today he lives as a monk in an ashram in India, he no longer identifies himself as a man, but as one who has risen beyond the norms of gender, he keeps no score of his money, and often doesn’t know whether he would have food for his daily meal. Yet he is happy, content would be a better word. His joy is obvious to anyone who comes to visit him, and there are many.

Sita was a little girl who grew up frequenting the same ashram with her mother everyday in her childhood. Born into a devout family, she had been expected to live a life in and around her religious beliefs. Twenty years later, she finds herself in Silicon Valley spearheading one of the largest startups in the world, finding herself in a flow when she is holding investor meetings or setting out the vision for an app that is used every day by millions of people. She finds herself in what might be considered an unfamiliar world, but she also finds herself being true to what she wants to do.

Ok sure, so what? You ask. People who traverse boundaries, those who choose to do things that we would never have imagined they would – these are the stories that make the news, that we hear of. Often enough that we think there is nothing unusual about them. But in the vast 7 billion population that we are, the proportion of people who manage to rise beyond the labels they were given at birth is miniscule.

All of us are born with certain labels attached to us. As we traverse our life’s paths, we gather a few more – some useful, some harmful, all of them a vestige of human laziness. But there comes a time in everyone’s life (even those of us who have the most privileged of labels) where each label is a shackle, a descriptor of just a fragment of your persona, a prison cell that doesn’t let you be all of who you truly are.

Most of us end up living our lives within a narrow margin from the definitions of our labels. Worst of all, we convince ourselves that this is the place we were meant to be, where we would be happiest. At a dinner party, if we were to introduce ourselves, we usually use a bunch of labels as props to place ourselves in the world – “woman, Japanese, CTO, resident of upper-east side” – whatever might be the labels that you use to place yourself, we rarely question if this is the “box” we want to inhabit? Or rather, do we want to inhabit any box at all?

Emily Dickinson‘s poem “Who are you?” could be considered a poignant resistance to labels – how dreary it is to be labelled like a frog or to tell one’s name to a bog. Dreary, indeed.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The word “authentic” has entered popular lexicon in recent years, and is often mistaken with complete transparency. Leaders go on social media to share everything from their sunny-side eggs for breakfast to their children’s scrawly drawings to subjecting us to their horribly crooning voices on karaoke videos. Authenticity is not about uninhibited transparency, at least it is not just about transparency. It is about cultivating self-awareness, about figuring out for ourselves what is it that we stand for, and then having the courage to communicate that in a way that resonates with others. Even when, or especially when, it goes beyond the expectations that others might have of you. And that’s not a thing just for leaders, it is for everyone.

As individuals, we are all unique. In a world eager to box us in, it takes hard work and a whole lot of courage to break tradition, to inspire action and to forge a path that does not necessarily fit into neat labels. Woe to the labels of “I am a manager, I am a woman, I am an American, I am a Christian…” I am who I am, the unique combination of many dimensions. Labels are a symptom of our brain’s laziness, a vestige from a previous age. Labels come with associations; with stereotyping and self-imposed constraints. Beyond Labels is about embracing who you are — all of who you are.

The question is – how many of us know who we really are? It is easy to confuse our sense of who we are, with who we think we should be. To hear not our own voices in our head, but the voices of others who have told us who we should be. Identity, as defined by the question, “who am I?” – is not a collection of labels, but is a collection of stories. It is the collection of stories that we tell ourselves when no one is listening. Having the courage to share it with the world is authenticity.

I have a bone to pick – I abhor cognitive laziness. When you talk to someone and you see their eyes glaze off, someone making shortcuts in their thinking to come to fast conclusions, when they pigeonhole you because they cannot be bothered to go beyond stereotypes – that is cognitive laziness in action. The root of labels is cognitive laziness. We are prisoners to a destiny determined by the laziness of the human brain.

The path to finding your unique self is fraught with contradictions. Because none of us is just one thing. Or a collection of a few labels. We are in fact quantum beings who are perfectly capable of absorbing duality of any dimension into our very soul. If that sounds like a statement I should explain further, I will. Eventually. But I suggest you dwell on it too to get to your own interpretation, to your own lived experience of holding duality of dimensions within your identity.

A simple example of a duality that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives is the tension between the need to belong and the need to be different. Todd Henry, in his book, “Louder than words” describes a similar notion thus:

Each of us is born with two contradictory sets of instructions: a conservative tendency, made up of instincts for self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, and saving energy, and an expansive tendency made up of instincts for exploring, for enjoying novelty and risk—the curiosity that leads to creativity belongs to this set. We need both of these programs.

In a world that requires us to put labels on everything, to present ourselves as fragments, what is really required is an ability to express the contradictions simultaneously and/ or sequentially in a way that is uniquely ours.

Sometimes matters get worse – in a world of social media feeds where we devour the aesthetic of carefully curated personas, we are often required to be different selves in different contexts. Those who do not manage to create a unifying narrative that goes beyond labels finds themselves parceling out fragments of their selves to fit external expectations rather than the coherence of their internal narrative.

Barack Obama in his book, “Dreams from my father” refers to these as costumes as he tries to reconcile the fragments of his fissured identity during his adolescent years.

I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me — the surfers, the football players, the would-be rock-and-roll guitarists — resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty.

Labels may be armors against uncertainty, shorthand for the lazy brain, guarantees for belonging – but they come with a hefty price tag. One that we should be very careful before agreeing to pay.

Before I end this long and winding thought experiment, let me recall one of my most ardent hopes for a better world, the context more apparent in this post I did on International Women’s Day.

We are the human rainbow with a whole range of shades and hues. We are each unique individuals with complex lives, with a desire to be accepted, appreciated and loved for all of who we are. That is the world I would like to live in, or at the very least, to leave behind for the next generations. When I think of the future, I imagine a world where every day is a women’s day. Where every day is a man’s day. And every day is everyone’s day. Where we are all celebrated everyday, for the unique individuals we are, where we are all beyond all labels.