I’ve written about this before, but I’ve gone through most of my school years labeled as “the smart one”. Since it’s a mostly positive label, I haven’t take particular issue with it. At the same time, I also accepted the term of “athlete”. These two terms have been the ones that surround me as I made my way through school, and they still do. Whether or not I like them, they’re the ones that have been ascribed to me.
However, I know I am much more than just an athlete and a “smart person”. I write, I read, I have an interest in everything to do with science, but I also am interested in design and technology. I have many different interests that are all but invisible to the majority of people who meet me.
It’s not that I don’t want them to know these things about me. Instead, the reality is that people can’t keep all these things about me in order in their minds.
Think about it: give me a number that represents an estimation of the people you know. Now tell me, how many details can you remember about a person, on average? Chances are, only a few. This is because we are very good at attaching a few labels to a person, and then calling it a day. From then on, we aren’t likely to change that label, nor are we to push further than that label if we don’t interact with this person frequently.
This tells us that we define people quickly and we make broad oversimplifications. The easier a person can be classified in one’s mind, the better it will be if one wants to recall that information. Therefore, we reinforce this mental model of others in our minds because it makes us feel more secure about knowing our friends and acquaintances.
It’s not necessarily fair, and it sure will lead to others defining you in ways that you won’t agree with, but that is how our minds work. We like to categorize in order to reduce complexity. As such, you have two choices: fight every definition others have of you (which requires a lot of energy), or accept the definitions others have of you and move on 1.
Others will define you, but you get to choose how you react to such definitions. If you want to be seen in a certain light, create that impression for people. Essentially, force them to define you as the person you want to be. It will never be a complete definition, but it will be one you agree with more.
1. [To be clear, I’m not referring to people being prejudiced towards you. I’m talking more about what you are known for, which is usually something to do with your profession.]↩