Seeing Beyond Labels

Carol waited for me to leave the venue before introducing herself. I had just spoken to a business audience at a corporate event. But to Carol, my message struck a personal chord and she wanted to let me know—just not in front of her peers.

You made me cry, she said, but quickly added, tears of joy.

During my speech I had explained how our focus creates our reality. If we focus on trouble, we’ll find it. If we focus on happiness, it will appear. I also shared how labels influence our perception. When we label something a problem, it becomes one. These labels act as filters to enhance our perceptual blindness.

My speech ended with a story about a kid who quit school in 2nd grade. He didn’t actually quit attending—he just stopped participating. He was smart—but didn’t do well in school. Based on his free spirit, unusual views and pointed questions, some teachers and adults labeled him as a “problem.” This label stuck and became a self-fulfilling prophecy up until the end of high school. Then an unexpected event took place—one that would forever change his life. To the amazement of many, the “problem” kid not only attended college, but was accepted into a competitive program and graduated first in his class. From there, the boy who quit school in 2nd grade founded and built a multi-million dollar visual communications firm, became an internationally recognized designer, and attracted a client roster that read like the Who’s Who of Business. After twenty consecutive years of growth, he sold his firm and became a best-selling author, creative consultant and public speaker… and I’m honored to be speaking to you tonight, I concluded.

What happened? What changed my life?

I will let you know in a future post… it involves someone seeing past the “problem” label I’d been given and helping me to do the same. It involves dyslexia, awareness, discovering purpose and passion… and much more. But for now, back to Carol.

As we stood in the corridor, Carol shared with me how her adult son had lost his way. Problems have become his focus… and mine, too, she admitted, glancing downward. He has so many gifts–so much to offer the world. It’s true… labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies, she continued, but only if we let them!

We talked for a few more minutes. Then realizing I was in jeopardy of missing my flight, I thanked her for sharing her story with me and wished her and her son the best.

No, thank you for helping me see again. People who can look past labels and see solutions are very special. Then she smiled and added, But you already know that… it’s the reason you’re here tonight.

Indeed I do.


8 Responses to “Seeing Beyond Labels”

  1. Doug Stevenson on March 8th, 2011 8:12 pm

    Michael: In my life, labels have been a means to understand a chronic condition and intervene to “make it stop”. Labels can also be a good thing, even when they are intended as bad. For example, “You are a disruptive influence.” Yes AND, “Here is why that is valuable in creative thinking”. Lately, I do think of labels more like tire patches – They address the immediate problem and allow you to proceed without owning the label “He who drives with flat tires”. If flat tires become a persistent problem, I would suggest looking at the patterns that contribute to this kind of outcome and change it. When I was a kid, my father deemed my a “procrastinator”, so every time I faced a challenge, I would double-clutch, sometimes fulfilling that label as if it were a prophesy. Later in life, I am still watchful of signs of procrastination, but I treat it as a hazard, not a final judgment and effectively, in most cases anyway, avoid it. I guess I am just saying – lose the label and the paralyzing judgment, but don’t lose the data. And make adjustments – they are not necessarily painful. Your personal story is a powerful one.

  2. Michael on March 15th, 2011 3:43 pm

    Doug, you make some excellent points. Like maps, labels can help us navigate territory… but they’re not the territory. Understanding this difference is key. In your example, “a disruptive influence” label is used to identify/describe a person. It is not the person. As you’ve pointed out, the meaning we assign is based on perception/belief. Is the label “a disruptive influence” good or bad? As you’ve explained, it depends. Like you, I have reframed many of the labels in my life… turning negatives into positives. Additionally, we can convert negative energy into positive results… energy is energy. It’s up to us how we use it. Thanks for sharing your insights and knowledge.

  3. Diane Hammon on March 9th, 2011 7:22 am

    I think we label ourselves and it is hard to give ourselves permission to REMOVE those labels–I was the ugly girl in high school with the braces and the dark circles under her eyes–inherited from my family–and the one with no dates–seems the ugly duckling has become a swan but I still don’t see the swan sometimes even though she is doing well and has done quite a bit to help others–someitmes the LABEL makes us work harder and do more because we need to prove that the label really is not us–thanks for makeing some of that clear–I am removing the label of the ugly duckling–it has been hanging on and boggin me down for way to long!!!

  4. Michael on March 15th, 2011 3:43 pm

    Swan, yes… ugly duckling… I’m stretching my imagination, Diane, but will accept your claim. Letting go of certain labels/beliefs is difficult at best. Especially childhood labels. It’s as if they were permanently branded into our brains. And as you’ve demonstrated, negative labels can influence us in positive ways, and make us work harder… if we let them. No doubt, proving/disproving has played a major role in my life, too. Little was known about dyslexia when I was a kid… at least by my teachers, etc. By extension, I received many labels over the years. This helps explain why Alfred Korzybski’s map/territory relationship resonates with me. Confusing models of reality with reality itself, is more common than many people realize. That said, please retire the “ugly duckling” label… it doesn’t align with reality! Thanks for shedding your light on this subject, Diane.

  5. Mac McIntyre on March 15th, 2011 11:16 am

    Everyone has labels I suppose. Few admit it but we tend to label ourselves. We probably shouldn’t allow labels to limit us but those assigned to us by others hurt sometimes.

    I am who you think I am.

    That’s where I’ve settled. Then I only have to attend to the labels and limitations that I place on myself.

  6. Michael on March 15th, 2011 3:44 pm

    I agree, Mac, we all have labels. Some can be hurtful… especially when we’re young and vulnerable. “I am who you think I am,” provides much insight on this subject. Our beliefs influence our perception… all the while reality exists independent of both. Labels are necessary to convey ideas and solve problems… but the more accurate they align with reality, the better. How many times has someone read one of your articles and projected his/her own meaning onto it? Writers provide thoughts through words, but the reader creates his/her own meaning. This is natural… and it can be enlightening, too. Readers continually teach me more about my books than I could have conceived of while writing them. That’s why I love hearing from people. It’s also why certain old books have so much depth… they’ve been read, interpreted and projected upon by generations. Each reader adds another layer of meaning. From where I’m sitting, you’ve not been limited by labels, Mac… thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  7. Lucia on July 9th, 2011 4:25 am

    Dear Michael, today I am so happy to meet you in the website simple truth and what you say has inspired me and give me strength to have some changes/challenges and surprises in my life in my 40s. Here I would like to ask for your advises. Actually I have recenlty discovered that I have lived a very boring life, since I was small, I used to take care of my family, being a good, responsible to my 2 younger sisters (as my mum has to work very hard, since I have a father addicted to gambling.) And during my childhood, I didn’t do things, acquired some hobbies that I like; what I ‘liked’ was those liked by my friends, parents… I learnt not to have my own likings and to be good is the greatest joy in my life, because from there, I get the appreciation and affirmation which is so important to me as a person. However, now living in a foreign land with a group of people because my job demands me to be so… during conversations and daily encounters wtih people, I realize that I know nothing, not even cooking, (because I am not so much interested in eating, the food I used to like are those related with my loved ones, the relationship is more important than the food), and i don’t know the names of the singers, TV stars, no stories of good books can be shared with others, not enough vocabulary of fruits, tourism, etc. because I really don’t enjoy life as a simple human person used to be… so now I desparately feel that it is difficult for me to join in other people’s conversations, what I offer is my listening, but for me, I feel that it’s not enough, something has to be done in my life… I would like to learn some interests, eg music and yet I find it difficult sine i don’t even know how to read the music notes, everything in my life seems so unfamiliar to me and it seems that I need to start living my life again.I doubt whether I have the ability to do so, because my brain seems not having enough memories to engage in these new things, and apart from teh work that I have to do during day time, it seems not having enough time for me to add some more interesting things … so what can I do… can you please give me some encouragement or practical advises, because I really would like to have some changes in my life, to make it more interesting, more lively!!! Thanks for reading my long sharing

  8. Michael on August 4th, 2011 10:30 am

    Thank you for your kind words, Lucia. Sorry for the delay… apparently my original response wasn’t posted. Labels and beliefs influence our perception… help create our reality. Case in point… “A very boring life”… or a very responsible and compassionate person? Why not a unique person… as contrasted to those whom you’re comparing yourself? Having insight into family members (people), knowing how to listen and care for them is powerful. Such assets are priceless… and applicable to many situations. Making a culture shift can feel overwhelming… that’s normal. Such shifts also present countless opportunities. Hint: those who profess to know most, typically know least. Dyslexia makes reading music difficult… but it hasn’t prevented me from playing. Don’t define yourself by deficits. You’re at a great age to explore life… to enjoy new experiences and blossom. Learning is trying new things… and happiness can be found in the process. Rewrite your script… our perceived weaknesses are often our real strengths. Thanks for weighing in, Lucia… and please keep me updated.

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