Before I was born, my parents purchased a tiny farm house nestled on nearly 50 acres of land, a tract on which my father would start, and grow, and successfully run his large animal veterinary practice. And later, where my mother would start, and grow, and successfully run her catering company.
The house originally had three bedrooms. Which worked fine because, at the point of purchase, my parents only had two kids. When I came along they decided that forcing my nearly decade-older siblings to share a room with me long-term wasn’t fair. So they had a contractor enclose the front porch, giving me a room the size of everyone else’s closet.
When my siblings moved away to college, I was still in junior high. With their departures my parents and I found ourselves rattling around in a house that, though small, still felt big and empty.
It was decided I would move into my sister’s room, and my shoebox would become the guest room. But that left opportunity for my brother’s room, which was an unusual shape: twice as long as it was wide. The three of us brainstormed and realized it might be a nice place to move the upright piano, which would get it out of the dining room. Perhaps we could buy a love seat. Maybe even a wingback chair. Then my mother had the brilliant idea to paint the room a cool, modern gray. This was the 90s, so not opting for hunter green and a sunflower motif made her a rebel.
When we assembled the room, with its cool gray tones, the upright piano, and the two new pieces of furniture, the three of us stood proudly in the middle of it wondering only one other thing: what would we call this room?
It didn’t seem right to call it the “piano room,” which felt clunky on the tongue. We couldn’t call it the “living room,” as we already had one of those across from the dining room sporting a recliner (and a television the shape and dimension of a recliner).
“I got it!” my dad clapped. “We will call it the conservatory!”
My mom rolled her eyes. I laughed. This was silly. A drafty farm house of no more than 1,200 square feet with one bathroom and no garage wasn’t the kind of house that had a conservatory. Dad might as well have suggested calling it the “gift wrapping room” or the “butler’s quarters."
A few days later mom was looking for a magazine and asked if I knew where it was. With emphasis, and a British accent, I responded, “I saw it in the conservatory.” The next day, my dad, without a hint of irony, said he’d be retiring to the conservatory to play the piano for a bit before bed. By the following spring, my closest friends referred to this small, gray room as the conservatory. As in: “Hey, the other day, did I leave my jacket in the conservatory?”
Nomenclature is a powerful tool we aren’t even aware we wield. Things quickly become defined the moment we label them.
I often find myself listening to the way people talk about themselves. Students, friends, my daughters. The adjectives they use to describe their state of mind, their looks, even their professions. There are all kinds of ways we talk about ourselves in daily conversations, not to mention the ways we talk about ourselves to ourselves. Students will say they “aren’t qualified” for job openings I send them. Friends will say they are “selfish” for needing a break from their children. And my older daughter will sometimes verbally beat herself up. She can be painting a picture that is so beautiful it makes me weep, and then suddenly she’ll throw the brush down, scream to the ceiling, “I’m HORRIBLE!” and stomp off.
Now, to be clear, my kid--and her talent--is anything but horrible. But I can’t help but follow in her Mad Parade as she storms through the house complaining about how horrible she is. Taking us both miles away from the weep-worthy painting.
Once, during a talk I gave, I had an audience member raise her hand during the Q & A and ask, “Look, I’m a crazy person with a crazy-ass life. How can I get some balance?”
Well, how do you make a crazy-ass life less crazy? Maybe you start by calling it something else. A rich life? A fulfilling life? I don’t know. But I do know that if you walk around calling yourself crazy, there’s really no impetus for anyone to call you anything else.
Sometimes the labels beat you to the party. Our dog Lucy used to be a wild child (like any Golden Retriever in the puppy years). The vet labeled her a “hyper dog.” But now that she’s been through training and has aged a bit, she’s about the most well-behaved dog you’ll ever meet. And yet the vet tech still approaches her with tense hands up in defense, confusing Lucy, who thinks, “Ah! I guess I’m supposed to jump on her!” If we aren’t careful, we can become what others call us.
And we can be very influenced by preconception.
It’s like how when a really good friend whom you love and respect recommends a TV show for you to stream. Because they have gone on and on about how great it is, you watch the show with openness. You watch it assuming you will like it. You don’t watch it trying to prove your friend wrong. Even if it’s Game of (eye roll) Thrones, if your friend said it’s good, you are ten times more likely to at least give it a chance.
So how you talk about yourself is the same thing as recommending a TV show, a book, or a movie. Talk about yourself and your life like it’s a movie you want your best friend to love as much as you do.
Because we are who we say we are. We get to become who we say we will become. We press the keys on our own label maker.
And a label is a powerful tool. Sometimes you can change your life--or any room in your house--simply by calling it something different.
What was impressive to me about my parents buying all that land and that tiny house is that it was such a bold move. As young parents with young kids, they decided to heroically strike out on their own--in a wildly inadvisable move--to become business owners; something they’d never been.
But my dad just called himself one: a business owner. And later my mom called herself one. And dammit, that’s what they became. And highly successful ones at that.
After all, these people lived in the kind of house that had a conservatory.
YOU GOT THIS comes out November 6.
This book offers professional women tactics to clarify goals, negotiate salary, have work/life balance, overcome doubts, and get the most out of life and work.