Adapting labels

# Have you ever labelled yourself in order to be understood?

My professional qualifications are a way of signalling to the world that I’m an expert. They were gained due to much peer/social pressure. Growing up in a country where education was the ticket out of whatever station in life your parents were in.

The idea of careers was a binary choice between a doctor or an engineer. If that wasn’t the chosen path, you could feel the label of a societal failure, someone who brought shame to the family. I took a path less trodden and it did not go well with teachers in my life. One in particular burst out: “You’re a waste! What was the point of being a top student if you couldn’t take up medicine?”

Whether at college, or at work, I’ve been quick to adapt to whatever situation I found myself in, even if it made me uncomfortable. Few noticed my discomfort, and while they may have wondered why I was there, I was quickly treated as one of the tribe.

An example: I got a violin, and a handful of violin lessons when I was in year 3 or 4. I wasn’t quite sure why because I didn’t think of myself as so interested in music to learn it, although I did have several cassette tapes on endless replay. I remember just enough of reading sheet music at the time. Fast forward 5 years, I was nudged towards keyboard/church organ lessons. Again, I wasn’t keen enough to learn to play, while a couple of other older women who were taking lessons with me did. When I changed schools again in year 10, I noticed that the kids I hung out with were all ‘musicians’ – played at least an instrument. I learnt to play by osmosis, and got decent enough that I could play something during practice. They thought that I was a musician because I could keep rhythm, learn the tunes and chords quickly, and had better vocabulary than everyone else, so could pick up the lyrics to most songs. I labelled myself a musician at that time. It opened many other doors, teaching and performing with young kids at various competitions.

Similar episodes during my working career. In my first traineeship/job, having little experience on a computer before, I learnt how to assemble them from a client. I learned enough about hardware & software from that experience. I learned how to work on spreadsheets, and improve effectiveness and efficiency of the entire office. I was reasonably good at explaining what I was doing, & it gave me more opportunities and more confidence to take on tasks that none of the other office staff wanted to do. I hated the title they had “articled clerk” so I labelled myself “jack of all trades”, and I lived up to that label too.

When people ask me today what i do, I use one of the professional ones – accountant or finance guy, analyst or IT guy, or business engagement partner are most common. It may be a shortcut to explain what I can do – but it means I also sell myself short significantly. People who’ve worked me a while tell me so.