(read time: 6 minutes)
We Are Put into Boxes at a Young Age
It seems that from the time that we are younger, we are put into boxes. We are told what we should be, as girls and boys. Psychological experiments reveal that certain behaviors are encouraged and reinforced while others are discouraged.
When I was younger, people put my sister and I in boxes too.
I was labeled the “smart one” and my sister the “athletic one”. This was pretty silly, because my sister was and still is very smart, and I am pretty athletic.
I absolutely hated it. Every time my parents would meet up with one of their friends, I’d overhear them labeling me as the straight-A student and my sister the athlete.
My parents meant it in a harmless way. They were trying to highlight our gifts. They were trying to praise us both.
But, what they were really doing without realizing it, was putting us in a box.
Boxes & Self Fulfilling Prophecies
The interesting thing is that when we are put into a box, we find ourselves in a self fulfilling prophecy. We begin to label ourselves and internalize these labels. We may have a gift or an above average skill in a particular area, but we ignore it, and do not develop it because of the label we’ve given ourselves.
For example, when asked whether I’d like to join a pick up soccer game, I would opt out to do my homework. My sister on the other hand, would never turn down an opportunity to play. And what do you know, my sister went on to play professional soccer and I to join the IVY league. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
How Others Have Broken Out of the Proverbial Box
Jay Samit, talks about this in his book Disrupt You. He tells the story of the uncoordinated, unathletic label others gave him when he was younger. He was always the smallest, weakest player and he was always picked last. It made him distaste sports, exercising, and being active. Upon reflecting on this label, he revealed that he had grown into a middle aged overweight businessman. He realized that he needed to get over his aversion to exercise and make a change. He let others put him in a box and as a result his perception of himself had changed. He literally had to transform the way he saw himself in order to transform his habits, his relationship with exercise, and his lifestyle. When he did this, he found himself in the best shape of his life.
Why do people feel the need to put us in boxes?
Humans like when things are neatly defined. It is easier to categorize, predict, and plan for. We like certainty. This happens in the employment world too, whatever niche we find ourselves in.
Boxes & Career
When I began my career in Talent Development in Human Resources, it seemed the only roles I was encouraged to find were other Talent Development roles. The constraints were more intense than that actually. The more I spoke to recruiters, the more I found they didn’t want me to leave the industry, I started in. In other words, if you started in the financial services industry, you were encouraged to stay within this industry.
This perspective always shocked and confused me for several reasons. First, an employee with more experience in various HR functions is more valuable to an organization in the long run. Second, experience across different industries in HR can also prove to be beneficial. Third, even when the specific function or industry is kept as a constant, every organization does things differently. This means that every time an individual joins a new firm, even if they remain in the exact same industry and role, they still have to learn new systems and processes. They also have to adapt to working with new people and within a different working culture. With this in mind, it doesn’t make sense then, to be so rigid about the “profile” every potential employee must have. In fact, according to research the best predictor of job performance across all job types, levels and industries, is cognitive ability, adopting and maintaining a growth mindset, conscientiousness and emotional stability.
In my humble opinion, I believe the skill set regarding your ability to learn and adapt to new environments are often better indicators of your success within an organization.
This is not to say, a pianist can become a coder (at least I don’t think this could happen overnight). Of course there are certain skills that need to be acquired for a given position. This makes a lot of sense. However, there is something wrong with a society that labels and then to some extent, pigeon holds individuals in a particular industry or role for their lifetime.
Why can’t a person in marketing transition into a career in PR? Why cant an accountant transition into a comedian? Why can’t an MTV VJ transition into an actress? With proper training and support, these transitions should be achievable.
Lala Anthony on Being Placed in Boxes
This is totally possible and in fact, I know people who have made these very transitions. Take Lala Anthony for instance, who started her entertainment career in radio. After a short internship, she was given her own radio show. She then joined MTV, and became an MTV VJ on total request live even though she had no TV experience. On Jay Shetty’s On Purpose podcast, Lala talks about her struggles with becoming an actress:
“For so long it was like “Lala from MTV” or “Lala the radio host” and when I wanted to transition into acting, I just felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was looked at as all these other things. I always talked to people about not allowing yourself to be put in a box because people love to put you in the box. “You’re the host of this, thats all you can do. You were on the radio that’s all you can do.” And I’m like I don’t understand that. I’m in acting class. I’m taking it seriously, I have a passion for it. Why can’t I do that as well? It’s all about breaking barriers.”
After leaving MTV Lala has made her debut in several films and is now an actress on the American crime drama television series Power. However she has had to work hard to break barriers and labels.
Are You Guilty of Putting Yourself in a Box?
You’d think that being aware of all the above, would help me to avoid doing the same to myself. However, I must admit that I’m guilty of allowing labels, to define my identity as well. For example, as I mentioned, I started my career in Human Resources on Wall Street. Over the last few years, I’ve taken an interest in more creative pursuits. One of the skills I’ve been interested in learning is video editing. I am excited to tell you that I’ve learned to video edit this year! But, I have to admit that I had a hard time getting to the point of taking action because of a label I had placed on myself. I never really considered myself to be a “creative”. I don’t know many people in financial services who would use that adjective to describe themselves and I think it’s a huge, albeit subconscious, part of the problem.
Over the last few years, I’ve been viewing myself as “MORE creative”. Afterall, I have started this blog. BUT and this is a huge but, the idea of being someone who was competent or knowledgeable about the topic of “film” seemed foreign to me. I just couldn’t imagine regarding myself a “video editor”.
The strange thing is, the world of film seems very exciting to me. Progress really all came down to how I saw myself and how I defined my own skills and capabilities. When I realized that video editing was a skill, that I was totally capable of learning (seems during the age of Youtube, so many people are learning how) I got out of my own way and finally learned how. It was exciting and empowering to experience this breakthrough. I was surprised to even come to the realization that I was putting myself in a box.
What Has This Experience Taught Me?
It is terrible to be placed in a box by others, but even worse to be place yourself in a box. We can experience powerful transformations when we allow ourselves to pursue our purest interests. What are the interests you had before you were told what was “realistic” to pursue? What are the subjects you never gave yourself the permission to explore? What are the topics you’ve always been interested in but never thought “someone like you” (insert label; “not tech savy”, “not creative”, etc. ) could figure out?
We are multifaceted and multi talented. Before we are “teachers” or “human resource professionals” we are humans.
We are humans that have lived through a host of different experiences. We are 3 dimensional. It only stands to reason that we are capable of having many different passions. Gone is the day when you have to adhere to a one size fits all career. In other words, it is no longer necessary to mold yourself (your personality, skills, mindset) so that you can squeeze into a career path for 50 years. Now more and more people are living dynamic lifestyles. They are working on side hustles that feed their passions. They are mothers, entrepreneurs, salsa instructors and speakers. They are fathers, lawyers, and marathon runners.
Choosing a 50 year career is like picking an outfit and wearing it every day for the rest of your life. The thing about this is you have to pick out this outfit without being able to pick the store or getting to try the item on. This means you can’t tell if the outfit fits right or if the material is itchy or uncomfortable and yet you must decide and then live with this decision forever. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? However this is the way of the old school paradigm. Many people make decisions about which career to pursue when they have limited experience about what that career or experience is really like.
We are capable of developing diverse skills and capabilities. A lot of people’s identities are wrapped up in the work that they do. The biggest problem with this is when you’re understanding of your capabilities becomes limited to the industry or role you currently occupy. Sure you may be good at your job. Afterall, you’ve spent time developing and practicing a particular skillset. But let’s not forget how skills are built! If you are interested enough in something else, you are capable of learning and developing a new skill no matter how different the skill is from your current role or job.
The bottom line is don’t let any one person, experience, or role define who you are. Ever.