Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

more-than-we-seem-492x303In 1996, I was hired to build a branch office for a technology consulting firm in Indianapolis.  My role included hiring the local team as well as developing new business.  At 27, I was young, brash, and, well, probably more than a bit cocky.  I was young for the position and worked hard to project an image of fast moving competency.  One day, during a conversation on adversity, one of my direct reports suggested that I hadn’t experienced some of the life challenges with which many others wrestle.  It wasn’t particularly disrespectful, but it did indicate a certain perception of me.  I asked her to explain and she told me that she figured I’d grown up with a “silver spoon.”  I was surprised but smiled as I realized that she did not know my story and was simply sharing her view based on what I projected.

Elegant Complexity

One of the beauties of humanity is the elegant complexity that comprises our being.  We can appear one way and hold any number of contradictions within.  We are gifted with the ability to be conflicted or certain.  We can embrace a position while simultaneously understanding, empathizing, and even agreeing with an opposing position.  In short, we can seem to be one thing while befuddling our most astute observers with completely conflicting views or behaviors.


As complex as we may be, we typically only project a limited version of our selves while the world around us is obsessed with labels and preformed conclusions.  We see the effects of these labels every day.  Political labels relentlessly bucket us with large groups of people with whom we may or may not share common ground.  The color of our skin, the clothes we wear, or our haircut might garner a particular inference from those around us.  If we claim a religious belief, well, we’ve seen what can happen when humanity labels people based on religion.

These labels filter down to our day-to-day roles.  Certain jobs are perceived as having more social value.  Certain titles generate specific expectations of behavior, values, or authority.  Certain addresses evoke a specific sense of a person and their position, value, and story.  I suppose it is unavoidable but it is so very limiting.  Of course, many people seek to project a specific image or expectation.  It is, after all, one of our gifts as humans.  But in so many cases, we simply draw conclusions waiting to be surprised or disappointed by the object of our scrutiny.

I was reminded of this recently during a lunch with my friend Dr. Juan “Kiko” Suarez (check out Kiko’s wonderful TEDx presentation on Wisdom here).   During a free-ranging conversation on careers, cultures, religions, and politics, we touched on the labels of our lives and the need for more than a soundbite to capture the complexities of our stories.  Our discussion was not a lament but a shared perspective on the opportunities presented to us when we are able to look beyond those labels.  Not just for society’s sake, but for our own growth as individuals.  In short, there is tremendous potential in recognizing that we are all so much more than what we seem.

Why Care?

Unfortunately, we are missing powerful connections and significant possibilities because of our preconceived notions.  The physician who is a talented carpenter.  The accounting clerk with amazing musical skills.  The CEO with a heart – yes, this too is possible!  The homeless man who was employed and in a home six months earlier.  The stay-at-home mom who put her career on hold to focus on the kids.  We are all full of surprises and have things to offer outside of our labels.  Sometimes we just need a chance to surprise.

We All Have A Story

As for me and my silver spoon?  I grew up the oldest of 8 children, attended 10 different schools while living in 15 different houses, 11 cities/towns, and 3 states before graduating from high school.  It looks difficult from here but it was amazing and I would not change a thing.  Still, it’s probably not the story I project.  Since 1996, I’ve hopefully lost a bit of that cocky edge and have evolved into a new set of labels!  Are you aware of the world’s labels for you?  How about the ones you project on the world?  When was the last time you asked someone to tell you their story?