No more itchy labels

One of the world’s greatest innovations took place not too long ago in the fashion industry. Quietly behind the scenes, a truly brilliant person or design team came up with idea to stop sewing those itchy labels into the collar or waste band of our clothes and instead to just stamp the information somewhere on the inside fabric.

I don’t know about you, but before this innovation, every time I bought clothes my first order of business was to cut out those stupid itchy labels the minute I got home.

This is like that—like stupid itchy labels we need to cut out.

Labels keep life simple:

  • It’s a BOGO sale on shoes. Bring your discount card.
  • Thursday night is Open House.
  • Luggage over 50 lbs. costs more to check onto a flight.
  • He’s a graphic designer.

But things aren’t always simple:

  • If I miss the BOGO sale, can I still use my discount card?
  • Who will be at the Open House and what’s going to happen there?
  • What if my luggage is 50.5 lbs.? Can I still get the lower rate?
  • Is he good at digital design?

In the middle of everything we have to do, when our time is stretched paper thin, we want the quick, easy, slap-on label or answer even when it doesn’t technically fit, so we can check that thing off our list, and move on to whatever is screaming for our attention next.

Easy labels tend to be extremes: people are “great” or “awful” situations are “perfect” or “terrible” opportunities are “exciting” or “a total waste of time”…only highs and lows, winners and losers. Gray areas and details take thought and time we just don’t have.

The other day, my friend Janine got scorched by a client who told her, “Look, the speech you wrote for me was awful. I can’t use it. I’ll rewrite it myself.” No way was the whole speech awful—Janine’s got 10 years of experience, and she’s good—but it was easier for him to slap an “awful” label on the whole thing than it would be to take the time to parse the good parts from the ones he wanted to change.

The chance to change
And though clear labels keep life organized and easy (I mean think of the chaos if we had “STOP-only-if-you’re-in-the-mood signs” or prescription labels that said, “Take twice a day-ish,” they can be really dangerous when it comes to us. They can make us feel stuck:

  • “I’m so unorganized.”
  • “I’m always late.”
  • “I can’t dance.”
  • “I’m a bad cook.”
  • “I’m just a bookkeeper. I could never do anything else.”
  • “I have a bad temper.”

None of these are permanent conditions. None of them. But if we say them often enough, and we allow other people to say them about us, or we agree with them, they sure sound permanent.

The truth is, beautiful someone, easy labels are wrong, or more precisely, they may be true today, but they’re not permanent conditions. There’s always a chance to change. You may be unorganized today, but you can fix that with some folders and a label maker. So you’re not a great cook? Buy some cookbooks and take a class. Can’t dance? Everyone can dance. Sick of bookkeeping? Start looking for another job. Philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard once said, “When you label me, you negate me.” Exactly. So let’s not.