Don’t Let Labels Limit You

How many different assessments have you taken that classified you as having a certain personality type, strengths, and so on? Maybe you did a Myers-Briggs assessment, the Strengths Finder test, the Kolbe test, or other assessments, and they told you something about yourself.

Perhaps this started with learning your astrological sign and discovering that you were supposed to be a certain way because of when and where you were born.

When I was in high school, I took a test call the Kuder Occupational Interest Survey. It said that career-wise, I was most aligned with becoming a computer programmer. Second was a forester. And third was a math teacher. I did roll into game programming after college, but I wasn’t just a programmer. I also became a game designer and an entrepreneur. It was close at least. Today I wouldn’t classify myself as a computer programmer though. I still have some of those skills, but it’s not a major part of my work these days.

When I first took the Myers-Briggs test, it told me I was an INTJ. Years later after I got into public speaking, I retook it, and it told me that I was an ENTJ. Somehow I’d flipped from introvert to extrovert. If I were to take that test again today, it might drift even more from the original result.

Assessments can provide interesting insights that may help you decide what to explore next, but don’t let them dictate what you expect of yourself. You don’t have to honor those limited expectations.

Regardless of what an assessment tells you about yourself, you can still make your own choices. You can develop entirely different leanings. You can train different qualities into your character by embracing different experiences and developing different habits.

And this assumes the assessments are accurate to begin with. While taking one of those tests, haven’t you ever felt that you could have answered some of the questions differently? What if you would have gotten a different result by taking the test a month later? Good tests try to build in some extra validation, but they can’t prevent you from changing.

You can live and work in ways that defy the tidy boxes of assessments. You can sometimes behave like an introvert and sometimes like an extrovert. You can act like a Cancer or a Leo.

Sometimes it’s wise to step back and see yourself as a tabula rasa – a blank slate that’s receptive to fresh input. Instead of clinging to the labels that have defined you in the past, let them float away, and realize that you have many more options beyond those labels.

One of the lamest ways to label yourself is to say, “I’m a non-techie person.” Well… there’s nothing stopping you from becoming one other than laziness and ignorance. Throwing around that label just makes you sound more empty-headed than necessary, as any techie person would love to tell you but probably won’t – guaranteed they’re doing an inner eye roll whenever you use that excuse.

Another weak form of self-labeling is to say, “I’m not a people person.” Oh really? Sure, you could go live in the woods by yourself. But the world is full of people, so maybe you ought to learn how to interact as if you are a people person. It’s learnable. And saying that you can’t do it sounds just as lame to social people as the non-techie refrain sounds to those with good tech skills.

Be very careful about turning your current skill set (or lack thereof) into a permanent label. You can always develop new skills that break your old labels.

I often cringe when people ask me what I do for a living. I don’t have a good elevator pitch for that – I’m not an elevator person. 😉

I think the reason is that I don’t like labeling myself because labels feel so limiting. Even if I rattle off a collection of labels like blogger, speaker, author, and so on, I still don’t like it. A bigger box is still a box.

Perhaps one label that I actually like is explorer, and that’s because it’s a label that gets to leave the old boxes behind.

I’ve found that my most interesting friends tend to have a lot of fluidity to them. They’re hard to pin down and classify in a tidy way. I have to understand them holistically and see them as always evolving because they won’t sit still and obey their labels. If I try to understand them on the basis of how they might be labeled, they’ll violate those labels soon enough.

What labels do you often apply to yourself that might be limiting you? Why not deliberately violate one of those labels and see what happens? You could have some really interesting growth experiences just by taking a label and exploing its opposite for a while.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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