Originally published at https://chengweihu.com/remove-labels/
I only wear clothes with no visible logos and avoid company swag or school merchandise whenever possible. While aesthetics play a role and mitigating decision fatigue1 is a factor, there’s a deeper reason behind it.
Labels serve as shortcuts for communication. Wearing a sweatshirt with our school logo implicitly broadcasts qualities its students typically have. However, the same label can be interpreted differently based on the viewer’s perspective. For instance, while one might view a person driving a luxury car as flaunting wealth, another may see them as valuing quality. 2
Labels can manifest as tangible symbols, such as shirt logos, or intangible terms that we or society assign to us, like being called “smart” or “cool”. And beyond serving as outward signals, labels also resonate internally, influencing our actions through our natural tendency.
Humans seek coherence and consistency in their thoughts and actions to minimize cognitive dissonance, which means the labels we embrace, consciously or subconsciously, shape our behaviors. For example, a hoodie with an Ivy League school logo isn’t just a fashion choice. It’s an unspoken agreement we subconsciously sign that can subtly nudge us away from behaviors not befitting the institution. With that agreement, we might shy away from trying things that could be perceived as unconventional or less intellectual, as they may not align with the stereotypical “Ivy League student” image.
In other words, labels are invisible boundaries, deterring us from exploring freely and trying things we might be interested in. These boundaries can restrict us from following our true passions because they create extrinsic forces that undermine our intrinsic motivation.
Letting go of labels sets me free to learn whatever I genuinely think is fun. When I first started my undergrad studies in finance, philosophy seemed useless, and programming looked too nerdy. But once I decided to get rid of whatever labels I had and avoid sharing my school and major, I was utterly free from others’ expectations. My first attempt was to go to India to teach English 3 simply because it intrigued me. That attempt turned out to be so fun, and because it was so unconventional to do such a thing, it also liberated me from the labels I subconsciously put on myself.
Following my curiosity without all the labels, I found joy in studying philosophy and even learning coding to become a software engineer. And as a software engineer now, where my peers usually dislike business and art, I can still study fun economics and design topics because I don’t mentally carry a software engineer label.
There are also labels that we put on for ourselves too. For instance, if we always think we are not good at math, this label, similar to stereotype threat, creates high cognitive loads and makes it harder to learn or even try something that requires math. But oftentimes, those math-related things just turn out to be not as hard as we thought. We draw an unnecessary line for our behavior and potential because we label ourselves as a “non-math” person.
Connection and focus
It’s worth noting that labels aren’t inherently negative. When signaling outwards, labels are an efficient way to convey information and build connections. For instance, wearing a school hoodie on the street allows alumni to say hi and connect more easily through a shared background. I also publicly label myself a “voracious learner” so people know they can share intriguing topics with me.
When communicating inwards, labels can be helpful when we want to cultivate a habit or commit to a goal. For example, labeling ourselves publicly as a “health person” might keep us on track with our fitness goals because of the desire to remain consistent with that identity. Learning In Public and sharing your goal invite others to hold us accountable. In these cases, labels help us focus on the objective we set.
Therefore, labels acting as unseen borders are not always detrimental. They restrict us from free exploration so that we can narrow our focus. Essentially, it depends on whether we aim to explore or exploit.
Choose our labels
To embrace complete freedom and follow our intrinsic curiosity, we should remove unnecessary labels until we can completely ignore them. While labels can be useful, we should be wary of their subconscious influence. We must choose our labels carefully and consciously.
Thanks to Angelica Kosasih, Jui-An Wang, and my mom for discussing and/or reading the draft of this.
Also, thanks to Harkiran Sodhi for sharing her related piece, Identity & Diaspora, with me after I posted this. An inspiring read. I highly recommend it.
- Though indeed I wear the same kind of clothes daily.↩
- We can also put on the same label for different reasons. For example, wearing the unofficial uniform for finance/tech bro can mean you care about the environment, the quality, or just want to fit in the scene.↩
- Yes, the kids are confused by my accent, 100 percent.↩