A few years ago a friend of mine went to USA. He brought me back an authentic New York Yankees baseball cap. When he gave it to me he made a point of showing me the authenticity label stuck on the underside of the visor. He said, this label proves that this cap is authentic.
I loved the cap. It’s still one of my favourite hats. I wear it often. And for years I left that authenticity label stuck to the underside of the cap visor. When the label started to come off I would press it back down. I did this several times. I thought the label was important. After all, it proved the authenticity of the cap.
Two weeks ago I pulled off the label and threw it in the trash. After wearing the label on my hat for years, I had finally stopped to think about why this label was important to me. Was I going to sell the hat to a collector? Did I not know that the hat was authentic? Did I want other people to know the hat was authentic? If so, why?
I think subconsciously I believed that the label made the hat more valuable, that people would somehow be impressed by it. This belief made no rational sense once I stopped to question it. I knew the hat was authentic – but I would have liked the hat regardless of its authenticity because it was a gift that held sentimental value. I did not need a label to see the value in the hat. I also did not wear the hat to impress other people (or maybe subconsciously I did!), but the label would not have made the hat any more impressive. It’s not like these caps are rare. I was simply wearing the label because my friend told me it made the hat valuable.
This realisation made me think about what other labels I am clinging onto for no good reason.
The hard worker label
Have you ever sent work emails late at night, early in the morning or on weekends? I have. I tell myself that I do it because I am busy and it’s the only time that I’ve got to respond to these emails. If I’m honest with myself I cannot ignore that it makes me feel good to show others that I’m working around the clock.
I believe that working hard is important. It’s necessary (but not sufficient) to get results. What is not important is for other people to see me working hard. If I work hard the results will speak for itself. I notice that when I fall into the trap of showing people how hard I work I tend to focus more on the hours I work rather than the outcomes I’m producing. Outcomes are more important than hours and how hard I work is nobody else’s business. The hard worker label exists purely for my own ego and it’s one I’m trying to peel off.
The expert label
How good does it feel to be the expert in the conversation? To be the one with all the answers, the one who has the last word. My ego loves it when I’m the expert. And I might even be helpful when I’m the expert, but the expert label can be dangerous.
Firstly, no one likes a know-it-all. Being right all the time and winning every argument is a sure way to piss off everyone around you. It’s not because people don’t value knowledge, it’s because they don’t appreciate your condescending attitude. People don’t like feeling like their experiences don’t matter and they don’t like feeling that they are less important than you. When I find myself in a conversation where I’m trying to prove that I’m right, I try to ask myself if being right is more important than the relationship? Usually it’s just not worth it, regardless of what my ego might think.
In addition, the expert label can often make us speak with confidence about things we know very little about. Even worse, people might actually believe that we know what we’re talking about and take our opinions as advice that lead to bad outcomes.
Lastly, the expert label gets in the way of developing talent. When you are coaching and developing the people in your team, it does not help them when you always provide the answer. A good teacher guides someone to the answer, let’s them discover it for themselves. Giving the answer does not provide the person with the opportunity to grapple with the concept. It makes them lazy. Knowledge easily gained is easily forgotten. Instead of jumping in with the answer, try to use the Socratic method (asking questions) to lead people to the answer.
The martyr label
I love how important the martyr label makes me feel. “I have to do everything around here”; “my job is so hard, no one else could do it”; “I got no sleep last night and I still got up early to feed the baby”; “do you know how many emails I get?”; “where will I find time to do this when I’ve got back to back meetings?”. It comes down to the idea that my life is so hard, I must be amazing to put up with it all! And how self-sacrificing am I? Always putting other people first even though it makes my life so much harder. I must be a saint.
Don’t get me wrong, I admire selflessness and the world can do with more of it. The problem with the martyr label is that it’s not really selfless, it’s actually self-serving. It’s about us feeling important to ourselves because we’re so “selfless” and hard done by.
I’m trying to get better at identifying when I’m showing off the martyr label. It’s something we do without realising so it can be hard to pick up on. Some of the red flags I’ve noticed in myself is pride, entitlement and complaining. When I feel like I’m better than others, when I feel like I deserve better or if I feel the need to tell someone how hard I’ve got it, it’s a warning sign that I might be falling into the martyr label trap.
One of the questions that really helps me is one I’ve borrowed from Jerry Colonna: “how am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?”. Often we’re the ones creating our own problems and then revelling under the martyr label of these problems.
A common problem I create for myself is micro-managing at work and at home. At the core of this problem lies the belief that “only I can do this well enough”. Of course this is not true but by not delegating or asking for help I don’t give people an opportunity to learn how to do things. I then use other’s inexperience and ignorance as proof to myself that I could not possibly ask for help if I want things done right. It becomes a downward spiral. The less I ask for help, the less opportunities people have to learn, the more stuck I feel in my situation, the more I complain and the more important I feel. Watch out for the martyr label’s spiral of doom.
The busy label
Oh, this is a good one. We all love this label. When someone asks us “how are you?” most of us have moved on from the standard response of “fine” to “busy”. We love telling people that we’ve been busy. The busy label can overlap with the hard worker label and even with the martyr label, but the busy label is broader. The busy label tells people that we are important because we are in high demand. Our time is valuable because we don’t have much of it.
Being busy is not a mark of pride, it’s an indication of a life out of control. We are busy because we make too many promises and struggle to keep them all. We become busy at work when we get sucked into trying to do a million things efficiently instead of focusing on the few things that will make us effective. We’re busy at home because of the fear of missing out, a lack of courage to say no or the pressure to keep up with the experielism (materialism of experiences) on social media.
Frantically running around like a chicken without a head is not really the picture of a fulfilled life, even if it makes us feel important for that millisecond when we are asked by an acquaintance “how are you?”.
What unhelpful label are you clinging onto for importance? Now might be a good time to throw that sucker in the trash.