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People Become What We Label Them

As an 80s kid I watched all the popular John Hughes movies. 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' 'Pretty In Pink,' 'The Breakfast Club,' 'Sixteen Candles,' and so on.

Every one of those movies had a hero who was also a troublemaker.

  • 'Ferris Bueller' - Matthew Broderick, who played Ferris, skipped school, stole his friend's father's car, and broke not a few other rules of convention for a day of fun. Yet he continually received positive feedback from the crowd. It seemed no matter what he did, or because he did what he did, Ferris was a star.
  • 'The Breakfast Club' - Judd Nelson, who played Bender the juvenile delinquent, also broke the law and the rules. His actions frequently made sense, including self-defense against the sadistic principal. Yet because he was in the category of "bad," there was no good that he could do, and every action pushed him further down the rabbit hole.

Here is one scene between Bender and Vernon (the principal) that captures this dynamic.
Vernon: You're not fooling anyone, Bender. The next screw that falls out will be you.
Bender: Eat my shorts.
Vernon: What was that?
Bender: Eat... My... Shorts.
Vernon: You just bought yourself another Saturday.
Bender: Ooh, I'm crushed.
Vernon: You just bought one more.
Bender: Well I'm free the Saturday after that. Beyond that, I'm going to have to check my calendar.
Vernon: Good, cause it's going to be filled. We'll keep going. You want another one? Just say the word say it. Instead of going to prison you'll come here. Are you through?
Bender: No.
Vernon: I'm doing society a favor.
Bender: So?
Vernon: That's another one right now! I've got you for the rest of your natural born life if you don't watch your step. You want another one?
Bender: Yes.
Vernon: You got it! You got another one right there! That's another one pal!
Claire: Cut it out!
Vernon: You through?
Bender: Not - even - close, bud.
Even as I read the dialogue I remember the pain of watching it. Bender was not a "bad guy," but he had been labeled, and that was his end. He was poor, and he was abused, and he had been targeted by the System. We knew how this was going to end up.

Hughes cast Ringwald as Andie, a kind of troublemaker-on-the-fence, in another film, 'Pretty In Pink." Her character was a poor teenager, literally from the wrong side of the tracks, who aspired to go to college and have the kind of storybook life it seemed the rich kids did.

Andie is unlike Ferris and Bender in a number of ways, and thus her community does not know exactly what to do with her.

  • She is a gender troublemaker, that is she is ambitious for a career and is not content to be someone's girlfriend. 
  • Her friends revile the values of the rich kids, and yet she aspires to leave poverty behind and in that sense become one of them. 
  • She violates the unspoken rule of a rich community. Which is that the people who have money get to send their kids to the good public schools, while the less fortunate do not have that privilege.

In fact the central conflict of the movie is that Andie does not label herself as others label her. Therefore her actions and attitude are inexplicable to them; her relationship with a young man is suspect and proves nearly impossible to sustain. Another bit of dialogue:
Andie: You're ashamed to be seen with me.
Blane: No, I am not!
Andie: You're ashamed to go out with me. You're terrified that you're goddamn rich friends won't approve.
[Andie hits Blane]
Andie: Just say it!
[Andie hits him again]
Andie: Just tell me the truth!
Blane: You don't understand that it has nothing at all do with you.
[Andie runs away]
Blane: [wipes a tear] Andie!
Andie is playing out a part that only she can see in her future. And until she stops being seen as a "troublemaker" and starts being seen in that new role, e.g. a career and financial success, she will not be identified as part of the group she seeks to join.

Labeling theory has a grand tradition in sociology but you do not have to be an academic to see that it is true. People become what we tell them they are. They live up or down to expectations.

What this means is:

  • If you treat other people like they are premium human beings, they will act that way.
  • And the reverse, if you see in them only evil, they will be only too happy to live down to those expectations. It is much, much easier to give up than to try.

Whether you believe in G-d or not, the point is this:  "You are a child of the most high G-d." You have the power to label yourself any way you want. And then live your life accordingly.

The power to own your own identity is the spiritual side of personal branding.

Don't let other people tell you who you are. Decide who you want to be. Take steps to make it real. Then you, in your words and deeds, will be the one to tell them who you are. Your brand.

And then they will treat you accordingly.

* All opinions my own.

It Is Not Enough To Give A Gold Star

Kindergarten Angels

In the movie '12 Years A Slave,' a woman is sold to one slaveowner while the trader rips each child away to separate masters.

The woman goes to the same plantation as Solomon Northup, the main character in the movie, who was drugged and kidnapped, beaten and stripped and sold like cattle.

One scene shows the woman sitting on the steps of her shack. She is bent over, one arm wrapped around a wooden pole, and she is crying heaving endless sobs.

Northup is determined to survive and her broken heart is catching. He cannot eat his food and he yells at her to stop.

She says to him, do you think that you are better than me?

He is startled by her response.

She says to him, do you think that because you are talented and smart and build things for the master that he will do well by you?

Northup insists that he will survive. That he is doing what it takes.

She says to him,  you do not get it. He presents himself as a caring man, a liberated thinker. But he is taking your work and I don't see him giving you equity in your achievements. Much less getting you the free papers he obviously knows you deserve.

It gives you a different perspective on praise.

For one thing it's not enough to tell people they are doing a good job.

Performance awards and certificates are nice, but the real thank-you is an opportunity to do what they love more often, and to advance into areas where they contribute the most to the organization.

It goes without saying that people who take the credit are disgusting.

Another is, you can't heap praise on people but keep them in terrible working conditions. It's easy to see what those are when you're talking about a plantation or a factory. But in the modern workplace there are lots of things that cause people stress.

Even the sound of someone's grating voice, day in and day out, can literally drive a person nuts. There are reasons why so many people live their entire working week in headphones, especially in today's open cubicle world.

Let them tell you what is wrong so that you can do your best to fix it. The conditions have to facilitate good work.

Finally, if you're allowing cruel or incompetent people to proliferate throughout the organization, it's not fair to say to someone, "You're a great employee...can you cover this?"

No, they cannot cover it. They can cover what they are supposed to do.

In the end productivity comes down to a simple formula: purpose (what are we doing here), process (how are we doing it), and people (the mind that drives the body to do the work). If we really want to support amazing performance, we should make sure that our people are supported - not exploited, not abused, not treated like inanimate things.

* All opinions my own.

Open Gov - What's Not To Love?

Photo via, "A Contest Even Mikey Would Like"

As a little girl one of my favorite commercials was the "Mikey Likes It" ad for Life Cereal. It was like, how could you not like Life? Even "Mikey," who hates everything, had a smile on his face when he at it.

Talk about effective marketing. I don't know why this is, but fights over which cereal to buy can wind up truly colossal. If you're a sugar type, the fiber freaks drive you nuts and vice versa. Some people insist on granola. And others, very weird if you ask me, like grains combined with berries.

So to this day, when I don't know what cereal to buy, I buy some version of Life. And then everybody is happy. Maybe they are not ecstatic. But they aren't complaining, either.

It seems to me that Open Government ("Open Gov") as a political philosophy and method of administering government works the same way Life does.

Think about it: When you don't know what to vote, you can always vote for Open Government. You can be Republican, Libertarian, Democrat, Independent, whatever: You still want to know what the government is doing to your rights, and how your money is being spent.

When I first joined USAID they put us through a week of orientation. One of our exercises was to sit down with a stranger and find 5 things in common in 5 minutes. (By way of background - they deliver foreign assistance overseas - so this exercise makes a lot of sense.) It was astonishing how well I was able to relate to a stranger once I saw that we were alike in some way.

Obviously there are things that cannot be shared. But in an era when traditional political parties are becoming obsolete to voters, and yet ideological divisions are more stark than ever, Open Gov is proving a common rallying point. I wonder what would happen if we acknowledged this fact and ran with it.

* All opinions my own. Updated November 3, 2013 at 7:23 p.m.