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The consequence of attaching labels to ourselves - my experience in relation to the 3 Cs: Creative, Collector, Consultant

In a number of recent blogs I have been thinking about ‘what am I becoming?’  Actually it might be more about the more emphatic ‘what I am becoming’ as I have a sense that I know exactly where I am headed, even though I might be the last person to realise it!!

I realised while writing the last comment that of course we all realise exactly where we are headed!  No one can avoid the fact that at some point we will all shuffle off this mortal coil.  Not exactly a career or developmental aspiration though, is it?!  What I was referring to is the reality that for some of us there is clarity about our direction of travel, professional and personal, that we choose to obscure.

Take for example the power of labelling.  I am not referring to the literal process of labelling as a means of organisation (that is for a separate essay!).  What I am referring to is the metaphorical labelling of ourselves and others.  Labels often written on the basis of a judgement formed during a moment in time, and yet stuck to someone with adhesive strong enough to last for as long as they do.

My focus for today is on the labels we might apply to ourselves, and how they might define or obscure our direction of travel. I have three that I have been inclined to stick on myself.  This is the story of how that happened and what I did when I noticed.

The labels are Creative, a Collector, and a Consultant.  You might think those are great labels to stick on yourself.  I share that view.  My challenge was that in each case the word has been preceded by ‘I am not …..’.  Your mind might immediately want to invite say  ‘tell me what you are then, rather than what you’re not’; an enquiry that will often support a reframe in thinking in someone stuck in ‘what I am not territory’.  Forgive me if I don’t take a dose of that very good coaching medicine medicine and stick with the origin of each of my labels, and how over time I have picked away at them and with the help of others, ripped them off altogether.

Which labels do you attached to yourself, when did you fix them in place, and when did you last check on how they are serving you?

Not being creative is something that came from assumptions formed under the influence of my family.  My parents had a strong sense of separation between science and art.  The former was a worthy endeavour and potentially impactful.  The latter was where creativity resided.  It was in how you wielded a brush, how you sculpted, how you composed music.  It was something ‘other people did’.  Whilst I was encouraged to play an instrument and encouraged in all the artistic subjects, any rewards were more about technical development, rather than creative flair.  There was no ill intention in this and yet I came away from that time of my life with the label ‘I am not creative’.  It is a view that has a hold in much wider circles as illustrated by the following quote from an academic paper called Engaged Scholarship and the Arts (Bishop K., 2019): ‘art is seen as childish and unserious or as a commodity to consume rather than something one can create’*.  There was no external challenge to my self-applied label during my professional career as I pursued one that was in science (there is a rather large assumption implied in that statement!).  I was surrounded by brilliant people who tended not to use the language of creativity, and I was not able to challenge my own assumption that creativity was confined to the arts, for the simple reason I was not aware the assumption actually existed!

I feel the need to provide a more balanced quotation in relation to science and art.  There are many but this one from David Zinn, pavement artist and philosopher, is particularly meaningful to me: ‘science is how we solve problems and art is how we cope with them’.  A great TED talk from him on the ‘tyranny of the blank page’ can be found here.

Anyway, my life was none the worse for this label, or more accurately, I was not aware of anything different!  Looking back from the vantage point of today I can see I have done very many fine things and I now fully own that I am creative, just not in the traditional artistic sense.  What happened that encouraged me to rip this particular label off?  Simple, someone challenged my assumption, which brought it into my consciousness and almost immediately allowed me to see the absurdity of wearing the label in the first place. 

The challenge came in a conversation with Karen Welsh, a brilliant artist who I met in the very early stages of C19, in fact just after the end of the first UK-wide lockdown.  We met as she was showcasing her work in a garden lit by brilliant sunshine warming the sense of release we were all experiencing.  Of course, in my eyes she was creative, by virtue of being a painter. 

We had a socially distanced chat in which we talked about her creativity, a conversation full of passion, energy and erm……creativity.  Karen eventually asked what I did and I actually said ‘I’m a coach, you know leadership, development, wellbeing, that kinda stuff’ before pausing and saying ‘not very creative!’  I can remember feeling instantly foolish (I can feel it right now in the pit of my stomach) but much more powerful was Karen’s response.  She gave me an arched eyebrow, a quizzical smile and a trademark twinkle-in-the-eye and said ‘Reeeeaaaally (long pause), you think that’s not creative?’

Which of your self-applied labels might originate from stories told to you as you were growing up?

In that moment the label that I had attached to myself became visible to me.  Over the days that followed I picked away at the edges of the label through reflection, conversation, and most importantly, noticing evidence of my creativity.  Over a relatively short period of time I was able to rip it off completely, or perhaps the better metaphor is that it just fell off.  The extraordinary thing here is how sticky these labels are and how influential they are on behaviour, yet how easily they can be removed once we are aware of them.  In the moment that Karen co-created my awareness she was being as creative a coach as she is an artist.

How are you tuning into the messages that your trusted others might be telling you about the labels they see you attaching to yourself?

Over the years Karen and I have had many mutually beneficial conversations.  She does have a knack for helping me see my labels.  Another one came up when she came around for a drink and enjoyed seeing some of her work on the walls of our lounge.  She commented that we were ‘collectors’ which again activated a trip wire in me causing me to say, ‘but I am not a collector’.  This time my recollection is that she just said, ‘look around you at all of these things of beauty’.

Which of your self-applied labels connect with the adult version of your identity?

Once again I became aware of the label I was attaching to myself, and its irrelevance.  In this instance I suspect that it arose from a belief I hold about collectors of art.  It goes something like this (squirming while admitting this stereotyping): art collectors are people who are wealthy, typically by birth, who have the appetite and time to consume art yet little motivation to create it.  How unkind is that and deserving of an apology, which I offer here!  In our home I look around our accumulated possessions and see that we are collectors.  We appreciate other people’s creativity, and at a level that we an afford, we enjoy being a patron of arts and crafts.  Our criteria in each case is that we enjoy it, we have seen the person who made it at work or at least have heard their story from them, and that we make use of it (where possible) in everyday life.  I suspect that this is much closer to an accurate definition of what an art collector is!  After all, there is no financial element in the definition of who is a collector or not.  If you have not already worked it out the belief I mentioned above is much more about my relationship with wealth and material possessions than anything else.  Let’s leave that to another day!

What about the final debunking for today, of the label ‘I am not a consultant’.  This one plays out in my professional role and has particularly come to the fore in my time as independent coach.  Anyone coached by me will have seen a little video in which I talk about the four main conversational interventions involved in personal and professional development:  coaching, counselling, mentoring and consulting.  The purpose is to give a definition of coaching, to distinguish it from the other labels (for that is what they are!), and to suggest when and where the boundaries between them might get blurred.

I think it is quite a useful little resource yet it is one that I think started to ink in the words on my already pencil sketched label which said ‘I am not a consultant’.  That pencil sketching had come from an experience of earlier in my career where I worked with research scientists.  We had a ‘healthy’ disrespect for management consultants who where occasionally brought in to improve our management and leadership practices.  Whether fairly or not, I did not consider these people to be my tribe.  Pinstripe power dressing, not obviously good people skills, and a high level of self-belief that was a little ugly to behold.  Oh, and some risible solutions.  For example, the solution suggested to this problem:

Problem:  a manager was struggling with being too available to his team who opened the glazed door of his office too regularly or ad hoc discussions.

Solution:  for the manager to wear a baseball cap when he did not want to be disturbed.

I mean that doesn’t even justify ‘papering over the crack’ status!  Does it justify my response of antipathy to the term consultant though?  No need to answer that!  That pencil sketched label has survived the best efforts of many people.  People whose opinions I value very highly and who were saying to me that I was an excellent consultant.  I chose to ignore those observations, preferring to hold onto the image of my baseball cap toting manager!

Which of your labels are still stuck to you despite your context changing and rendering them irrelevant?

In more recent times I was concentrating on labelling myself ‘I am a coach’ (and a very good one by the way) with the unintended consequence that ‘I can’t be a consultant’. So began the process of writing the label indelibly.  The journey to a more positive relationship with the word consultant is one made possible by the realisation that I can be both a coach and a consultant (an example of the value of a both/and rather than an either/or mindset).  However, to be good at both I cannot be both at the same time.  They are skills that I can bring to bear on the needs of different clients and different contexts.


What are you not owning about yourself as a consequence of labelling yourself in the way that you do?

There we go then!  An exploration into identifying self-attached labels and the value in testing their relevance.  What does all this mean in terms of ‘what I am becoming’.  Put simply part of the journey towards ‘what I am becoming’ maybe about owning what I already am!

The conclusion arising from my musings is captured in the picture below. While I don't plan to actually stick these to myself I am going to keep them nearby. I am grateful to Duncan on Etsy for having a business line in selling Dymo labels to order. Far more entrepreneurial than I am...............aarrrgghhhh, there I go again with the labelling!!!! If there is anything prompted in you by this blog and you would like to talk more about it by all means get in touch.


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