Like High School -- but With Suits

Don't let your company's labels become the only way you define yourself.

My grandpa Max was the quintessential self-made man. His father, a scholar in the "old country," was a peddler in America. With five brothers and sisters, grandpa quit school after eighth grade to help earn money. He worked as a bellhop, then a car mechanic; they called him "Blackie" because of his dark hair. By the time I came along, his hair was gone, and he had turned from auto repair to producing his own invention: a servomechanism for vending machines. Eventually, he built a manufacturing company where, even as the business grew, he knew every person who worked for him. His machines sold worldwide, and it was a true success story. Later, he sold his company to a conglomerate. When he turned 65, they told him no more line management; at 70, he was forced to retire.

That word, "retirement," hit him like a freight train. One week he was a vibrant, cheerful leader, beloved and successful. The next week he was an old man, sitting in his blue wing chair in grandma's living room -- frustrated, angry, and somehow . . . broken. The only way he could imagine rebelling was to build a new plant and re-create what he had lost. It didn't work out. They said he died of heart failure, but I knew it was heartbreak.

Who's responsible for that line about "sticks and stones"? What the hell were they thinking? Names can hurt me. They can also imprison me, crush my spirit, break my heart, injure, bewilder, frighten, paralyze, and anger me. Naming means power. Organizations routinely name people. Retiree, CEO material, or team player -- even a job title can be a shackle. There are those who let themselves get beaten up by the names imposed on them, but others find a way to take back the power and name themselves.

Consider Frank, a former student in my course on the "second half of life." He had recently retired from his engineering company, and, like so many others, he was depressed and frightened about the R word. Retirement literally means "to draw back" -- as in a person walking backward, withdrawing from view. Whose view? The company's, of course. Retirement describes the experience of people at the center of a firm as they watch someone move beyond the edge of their institutional radar screen. It says, "You no longer exist because I can't see you." And it really did seem as though Frank was vanishing. He always looked confused. Frank had bought into the notion that retirement means you're no longer worthwhile. He had let a word define -- and limit -- his horizon.

Toward the end of our time together, Frank seemed to wake up from a drugged sleep. He had begun to see that just because he had retired from his company, he didn't have to stop doing the things he loved. When I saw him a year later, I had to blink to know it was the same man. He had started his own small company, with new projects all around the world. He was vibrant, directed, and nearly always singing. The pivotal difference was that he stopped experiencing himself as the company had defined him and realized he could define himself. Then he did.

The same syndrome is at work with lots of other organizational names. Another student, Andrea, had her opportunity for self-definition come when her boss criticized her for not being a team player. She had spent years turning her life inside out to be successful in the company, but a hard look at the facts revealed some distressing patterns involving women in her firm. Many of them got into trouble somewhere along the way for not being team players. In that firm's strong male-identified culture, old stereotypes still prevailed. The same behaviors that identified men as leaders left women tagged as aggressive and worse.

Andrea had intentionally ignored these patterns over the years, believing she could be the exception to the rule. Now she decided to spurn the organization's name for her. She repotted herself in a company with a healthy contingent of women in upper management, and her career took off. She found the kind of success that celebrated her strengths, and in the process, she found her own name.

Once you realize that these names for us are just more company-speak, you can begin to take back your future. Adolescence is a time when the group imposes labels on the individual. (Were you "most likely to succeed"?) All too often, our adult organizations are just like high school, but with suits. Ultimately, though, adulthood means learning how to name ourselves -- even when it hurts.

Shoshana Zuboff is the coauthor of The Support Economy (Viking, 2002). Join her online discussion.

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