Four letter word just to get me along
It’s a difficulty and I’m biting on my tongue and I
I keep stalling, keeping me together
People around gotta find something to say now
— The Ting Tings, That’s Not My Name
The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
And I knew no words to share with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing
— Death Cab for Cutie, Different Names for the Same Thing
I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!
— Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue
There is a film the closing sequence of which is guaranteed to agitate my tear ducts and prompt blurry vision. It is a sequence of action and revelation, played out with minimal dialogue but filled with the emotive strains of Henryck Górecki’s slow-building Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). The film is called Fearless (1993). Adapted for the screen by Rafael Iglesisas from his own novel, it stars Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez and John Turturro. It was directed by Peter Weir. At the centre of the film’s narrative is architect Max Klein (Bridges), who is one of the few survivors from a plane that crashes en route from San Francisco to Houston.
Like Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), the lead character in Peter Weir’s next feature film, The Truman Show (1998), Max experiences a major shift in his own reality. It prompts questions of an existential and epistemological nature. Both Max and Truman search for meaning, seeking to understand the world that surrounds them. Theirs are journeys of self-knowledge and learning, of understanding patterns and sense-making. Remarkably, both lead characters simply adapt to their new realities. The context in which they find themselves has changed, their own perspective has shifted, and they effortlessly accommodate the change.
[Picture: Poster for Fearless, directed by Peter Weir and released in 1993]
For Max, his new-found inner calm is disturbing to others. As are both his sudden ability to eat strawberries, a fruit that previously triggered life-threatening allergic reactions, and his overcoming the fear of flying following his flirtation with death in the plane crash. As a consequence, Max is required to work with psychiatrist Bill Perlman (Turturro). While Max’s erratic behaviour and emotional distance from his family following the accident justify the counselling he receives, it is difficult not to empathise with his resistance to the notion of treatment and avoidance of the label post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is this label dodging, this unwillingness to be simply categorised and pigeon-holed that I find most attractive about an admittedly flawed and damaged character. I have written before about my own aversion to job titles and job descriptions and all the constraints they imply. There is something unappealing, lazy even, about distilling an individual, in all their complexity and diversity, into a simple label. In recent weeks, for example, I have found myself increasingly intolerant of the articles, blog posts and soundbites that distinguish between boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and beyond.
Were I to subscribe to such labels, my birth date would suggest an X but other factors would indicate a Y. In my personal experience, though, across a number of industries in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, habits, working practices and technology preferences are less reflective of generational differences than of mindsets. I know many over-40s, for example, who are digital natives, connected via global social networks, focused on openness, transparency, collaboration and cooperation, and campaigining for an overhaul of our social institutions and workplaces. Conversely, there are many young people I have encountered who are resistant to disruptions to the status quo, who welcome the comfort blanket of tradition, and who advocate the hierarchical pyramid and their own lowly place within it. I am not saying either group is right. Simply that their choices and worldview cannot be demarcated by anything as simplistic as a year of birth or a zodiac sign.
Which brings me to another type of label that has attracted much Twitter commentary in recent days, especially following the publication of an article by Joseph Stromberg in Vox: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I previously expressed some of my suspicion of the MBTI label in a post called The quiet man. I’ve an appreciation, from a cultural studies perspective, of some of the Jungian theory that underpins the methodology. But I’ve always felt that any personality assessment has to be delimited by time and context. I am sceptical, therefore, when people constantly define themselves in terms of an MBTI label, even more so when I have seen my own scores alter on different occasions when I have taken the test. I know that, with the passage of time, I have experienced and learned things that have affected the way that I behave and perceive the people and events around me. If I know I have changed, then I would expect the labels others would want to attach to me to change too. I will accept introvert as a personal preference. The rest of it is open to question and fluctuation.
One of the few other labels I am willing to accept without complaint is that of generalist. That may be because for some people it means everything and for others nothing at all. Or it may be that it is because I have learned to see my blending of multiple interests as a strength rather than the weakness champions of specialism would have had me believe. What is interesting, though, as I begin to look for new work, is that I am having to condense what I do, to self-apply labels so that others can make sense of me and what I have to offer. I have always embraced the idea of being a writer, and have recently rediscovered an aptitude for work as an editor. What has surprised me is that, without any affiliation, I now feel far more comfortable describing myself as a change agent – someone interested in catalysing change and guiding others through it.
As with Max in Fearless, I’ve needed a period of reflection, as well as coaching from others, to come to terms with this image of myself that I am comfortable with and willing to project. How long it will last before I begin label dodging again, only time will tell.
Words are just words. Stories are just stories. But with context, concepts come alive.
— Bryan Kramer, Human to Human
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Most organisations almost solely appoint people on the basis of their professional qualifications. An unboss puts just as much emphasis on attitude. Are the applicants really passionate about your organisation’s purpose? Will they do their utmost to promote it? Finally, look for people with unusual backgrounds.
— Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss
I’m often faced with two types of job applicants. One has years of experience, an impressive portfolio of work and a specialty that took years to hone. That candidate discusses their job history engagingly, within the parameters of what is known and what has come before. The other candidate is young—sometimes almost ridiculously so—and is only held back by a lack of experience. That candidate never talks about history, but about what she wants to learn, where she thinks the world is going, and what kinds of products she wants to develop there. The second candidate is the smarter hire.
— Josh Payton, Why the Best Designers Don’t Specialize in Any One Thing