Expectations are interesting in forming one’s identity. As the CEO of an A/B testing software startup, I am expected to behave in a certain way. I am expected to be on Twitter (@paraschopra), constantly devouring and commenting on funding news on TechCrunch, participate in lean startup discussions, track and gossip on movements of Apple stock and debate on how India can have interesting startups as well. If I’m a cool CEO, I will be expected to hang out at places like Hacker News and Reddit. Within local startup community, I’m expected to frequent startup events and chat about latest and upcoming startups and things like what can be done to improve the “ecosystem”. All in all, the mere label of ‘CEO, software startup’ describes majority of who I am and how I spend my time.
Now, add an additional label like ‘A/B testing‘ or ‘marketing’ and you’d end up describing the remaining modicum amount of my identity. Most people defined by labels of similar fashion. Someone is an MBA grad from Harvard, and you’d guess what sort of person s/he must be. Someone is into fashion? Ah, s/he must be attending fancy parties. Someone is a journalist? Oh, must be an interesting person to talk to. Did you graduate from a design school? OK, so Where’s your portfolio?
I find it immensely demeaning to label people, and I consciously work hard not to judge people from such labels. So what if someone is a doctor, can’t s/he be playing in a death metal band during free time and weekends? Can’t startup CEOs have interest in Nihilism, digital evolution and comics, all at once? People can, and should, be much more than a few labels they get associated to.
Human identity is infinitely complex and fluid. I say complex because (even though most are afraid to do so) people can behave in unpredictable ways. I say fluid because the self can be changed at any point of time. A religious person can become an atheist once given the right exposure. (And I have seen people change drastically). In spite of this essentially indefinable human nature, we all use labels that conveniently abstract and compress information about people.
People don’t have to be something
We tend to label people because it is very convenient for us. If we see a person dressed in leather jacket and having pointy hair, we’d immediately call him or her a “Punk Rocker” and associate many other attributes automatically. However, this is demeaning to the individual being judged because s/he could be anything s/he wants to. S/he could be a punk rocker who is majoring in neuroscience. It’s OK to have incompatible tastes in life. That’s the fun of being a human.
You are actually a constantly evolving mix of numerous attributes. Your ideas, your aesthetic sense, your dressing style, your take on worldly issues, your interest in metaphysics, your liking for movies (and many other elements that compose you) are to be defined by you, and not a label. What society likes to do is to take one of your (major) attributes and simply extrapolate it to the other ones. It’s easier for them to see (or worse, expect) you behave in a specific sense. Would anyone care to hold megabits of information about you? They want an easy to understand label that fits their mental models so they could sleep well at night knowing that the world will behave in an orderly way, they way they expect it to behave.
But you don’t have to care. Don’t help the society stereotype yourself!
The proper functioning of the world is none of the business, especially if it comes at an expense of your freedom and your definition of your identity. However, interestingly, part of the problem of this stereotyping lies within us. And that’s because probably we’re the first ones to stereotype ourselves.
Many people in search for their identity end up hopeless and anxious, feeling they don’t know who they are and where they are placed in this universe. That moment of uncertainty is precisely when people fall into the trap of stereotyping themselves. They take a hard look at their (randomly stumbled) professions or passions and try to construct their identities around the way they’re expected to behave in such professions or passions.
Take for example an accountant who likes soccer. He has friends who are accountants who like soccer. He reads blogs and articles on accountants and their lives. Best practices. Tips. Tricks. And articles like 5 best vacations for accountants. He dresses formally in the morning, goes to office at 9 am, does minor chitchat with fellow accountant colleagues on lunch, comes to home at 5:30pm. On the weekends, he likes to watch soccer or go for movies. Life is easy, fun, simple but eventually the accountant gets bored and jaded and he wants to try something new and interesting (hey, sculpture sounds fun!), but unfortunately now it’s too late. He’s fully convinced that he’s an accountant and that means he’s not supposed to indulge in art.
As long as the accountant is happy with his life, I’m fine with the stereotype (after all, what else does one need from life if not happiness). However, I have major problem if this stereotype starts impacting the well-being of the person, once it starts crushing the freedom and potential of the person who merely happens to keep books for a company. The complex feedback loop of the society trying to stereotype the people who want to be stereotyped is quite apparent, but it need not be that way. If you’re an accountant (or an MBA grad or an investment banker or an artist), you don’t have to be necessarily defined by that label. You can be anything you want want and you need not take anyone’s approval to nicely fit into labels the society tries to apply to you.
Shock the goddamned society!
One easy way to not fall into trap of stereotyping is to actually keep people guessing who you are. In fact, by constantly changing and exhibiting varied interests and behaviors, you would actually be send a very clear message that you cannot be defined. (A fact that is essentially true for all humans.)
Go for scuba jumping when you’re 80. Have an obsession for human skulls. Love black lipsticks. Become a hipster, or don’t become one. Fantasize about working at a sweatshop, barely able to survive. Write boring poems. Admire villains. Be devoutly religious and research on particle physics (or, actually, maybe not). Do whatever the hell you like to do and do it often as society doesn’t take a lot of time to form opinions. Always push the boundaries of people’s expectations. If they think you’re normal, become weird. Once they start thinking you are weird, suddenly become normal. Shock the hell out of people and do it regularly! If for nothing else, please do it for the lulz (since nothing matters, all we want from life is a constant dose of lulz).
The point, of course, is not to be a contrarian for the coolness sake alone. Well, if you’re happy that way, fine. But it’s not cool to be a contrarian knowing you’re faking it and actually feel unhappy/pressured to keep up with that contrarian label that is now you. The point, however, is to be whatever you want to be, believe in whatever ideas you want to believe in and be as incompatible as you want to be without caring what the world thinks and how people may judge you.
As long as you’re happy, moral and indefinable, it should be fine.
So, do you promise to do at least one activity that is completely unexpected of you? I promise that the entire episode would be super enriching, maximally fun and you’d definitely thank me for hat! Did I just write hat? Which hat? Maybe I meant that. Or, maybe I didn’t.