Another Problem With Labels


Remember Son #3 – The Beheader of Marigolds and the Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment? Yup. That’s him. Which brings me to another problem with labels that my sister pointed out to me.

They become self-fulfilling.

Which is great if you’ve been labeled a superstar, not so great if you’re called a troublemaker. Heartbreaking when others do it to us, but even more so when we do it to ourselves. For example:

I can’t start my own business, I’m a mother. I have three kids.

I can’t change things at my job, I’m just a worker.

I’m too old to learn this.

Let’s pick some new labels. In fact, let’s try on a new one each day. Today I’m going to be Graceful. (Don’t laugh). So, please share. What’s your self-inflicted label for today?


The Problem with Labels


Meet son#3. He’s also known as:

The Uprooter of Tulips
The Beheader of Marigolds
The Hallway Graffiti Artist
The Stacker of Toothbrushes Down the Drain
The Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment

The problem with labels like these is that they don’t capture the mischievous glint in his eye before he attacks a soap bubble or the sweet and innocent way he says sorry after he’s dumped half a liter of water on the floor in his quest to study fluid dynamics. They in no way capture all the sweet and funny things he does, which mostly make up for the renovations required to our home.

To a certain extent, we need to use labels to help us quickly understand complex situations by categorizing all the information we receive, which, I suppose, is why all the “job hunting” gurus and resume experts advise that we should brand ourselves. A simple, clear and easy to understand statement of who we are. But I’m not a box of cereal and neither are you.

So who really suffers when we stick to labels? The labelers, of course.  The moment we have categorized something or someone, it limits the number of interactions we can associate with them, in turn, limiting our creativity. If we think the spoon is an eating utensil, we will only use it for eating. It’s also apparently really useful for digging up bulbs in the garden, playing the stock pot and removing drywall.

If I think son #3 is a troublemaker, I will only look out for the trouble he creates. I need to take a step back and deconvolute the label.

Son #3 is a troublemaker because he doesn’t listen to me. Son #3 doesn’t listen to me because he really, really, really wants to do what just popped in his head because he’s:

a) So curious he’s going to explode if he doesn’t
b) Determined the rewards outweigh the risks
c) Testing me to see if he can overthrow the current regime in this family

Which actually makes me think he’ll be a great entrepreneur in a few years and his curiosity and questioning of authority should actually be encouraged. Just like that, he’s transformed from troublemaker to possible retirement solution because I am so moving in with him when I’m old and senile. Revenge, circle of life, and all that.

We need to look at all the people we’ve categorized and labeled. They could end up becoming friends, or at the very least surprise us. And seeking out surprises is a great way to change our way of thinking and learn new things.

Safe and stagnant is boring.

Maybe I should buy son #3 a chemistry kit. He’ll like that. The “not for children under 3” warning is probably just another example of labeling designed to simplify our lives and stifle our creativity. Maybe. What the heck, the spare room is already missing some drywall, anyway.





There’s a certain beauty that can only be seen in times of stress or crisis. Perseverance, courage, ingenuity, dedication—most of these only become visible when called upon in difficult times.

I’ve always been rather fond of my hibiscus plant. Though each individual flower never lasts very long, each one is bright and beautiful when it blooms. During the recent ice storm, I saw a new side of my plant. I saw it hunched over, carrying the weight of almost two centimeters of ice on its thin branches so that the branches were scraping the ground instead of reaching for the sky. But, for all its perceived delicateness, the branches held the weight and they were all the more beautiful for it.

I think too often we try to just get through tough or stressful times. All we see is the end goal and plow on straight ahead, holding our breath until the end and then we collapse on the ground afterwards and celebrate that we made it.

Personally, I think we should do more celebrating mid-way through. When we are so stressed that we don’t think we can handle anything more, when we are exhausted and feeling brittle, we should take a moment to stand tall and say, “Hey, I can do this. I am doing this. And that’s pretty darn awesome.”

Failure is, of course, a possibility. But fear of that failure should not paralyze us so that we can’t enjoy the journey for what it is.

To all my friends, family, fellow MBA students, teammates, and fellow karate-ka—here’s to the next few months. They will be crazy and exhausting and difficult and I intend to love every minute of it. Thank you for allowing me to take this journey by your side.


The Care and Feeding of Gremlins


We all have one.  For some it speaks louder than others. It’s that nattering voice in the back of your head  saying you can’t do that.

You shouldn’t do that.

If you do, you’ll just fail.

Might as well stick with what you’re doing.

Maybe you just have to work harder…

Some call it a Gremlin. Other people call it our inner critic or our elephant. Those of you less inclined to abuse metaphors might prefer to describe it as Negative Self-Talk.

My gremlin is a scary, ugly  thing that looks a lot like Venom (Spiderman comics) with his big, sharp teeth and long, snake-like tongue. He is loud, terrible—hysterical almost, when it comes to pointing out my shortcomings.

Well, he was. The best thing I ever did was learn to identify and hear him. Not listen—not ascribe value to what he was saying, just hear his ramblings and treat them as if they come from a half-senile old relative that nobody in the family really listens to because he smells bad, has personal space issues and is, well, mostly crazy.

Hear him, nod slowly while backing away in a non-threatening manner and say, “that’s interesting”.

It sound ridiculous to type it out now, but I could only realize the garbage of what he was saying when I removed my emotional reaction it. And like trying to pick out a conversation in a crowded room, it became easier when I identified him. I found my Debbie Downer.

After that, I started to have some fun with him. I took my kid’s Venom figurine and dressed him in some old Barbie clothes. Now, when he starts his rantings in my head, I  mentally dress him up in funny clothes and tell him to go play in heavy traffic. We have this back and forth that reminds me a lot of the Frog in the Blender.

It took a while, but he’s a lot less powerful now. He still occasionally reveals his scary head, but mostly he just sits in the corner knitting, no longer interfering with my inner Wonder Woman.

So today, look out for your inner Gremlin. Call them by name and introduce yourself. Just because they’re crashing your party doesn’t mean you should pretend they aren’t there. Take stock of what they look like and start to hear the words they say. Ask yourself if you would take them seriously if they were physically in front of you or if you would just roll your eyes (and/or throw your coffee in their face) and go on with your day.

It’s a gremlin. It doesn’t like sunlight, that will kill it. Same here. It’s time we put them in the spotlight and neutralized their power over us.

Gizmo: Bright light! Bright light!

By Veronica Ciolfi

Your Values or Mine?


Yesterday, my friend asked me a question: Can you lead someone with very different values than you? After all, personal values help define who we are and are at the core of what motivates us. How do we reconcile working with someone who wants different things than we do?

First I would argue that mutual respect is a must.  If there isn’t, if one person believes that the other’s person values don’t matter, you can’t have a mutually beneficial relationship. If there’s no mutual respect, then you have to decide who’s values take priority and how do you do that? No one person is fundamentally better than another. At some point there has to be an agreement to disagree or the person who drew the line in the sand ends up walking away.

Secondly, though your values drive your actions, as a leader, you are more interested in what drives your subordinates actions. All values are great, they just mean that people have different priorities than you do. From my perspective, a leader needs to know what motivates their followers and do their best to give them what they need in order to be successful, thus driving the mission forward. If family is the number one priority of one of your workers, then if you want that worker to provide their best to the company, you have to do what you can to help them meet their needs. Working from home, or flexible hours during difficult family times. At the same time, if you know that family is important, you can try to provide that kind of atmosphere at work to motivate them.

If you value independence and your co-worker values teamwork, I can see how there would be friction, but as a leader, you need to still be able to give your follower what they need, if you want them to be successful. To force them to prioritize your values isn’t going to work.

But what happens when people in your team have different and possibly conflicting values? That’s where it gets difficult. In all cases, the cost of being together as a partnership, a team, or a firm has to be lower than the cost of working separately. If it is too difficult to make someone productive, if it harms the team and lowers their productivity, then the firm would be foolish not to get rid of this person or move them elsewhere, which has its own costs. This explains why recruiters place a lot of emphasis on cultural fit when hiring. It’s easier to work as team when you’re all stuck in the same mud together.

So what can you do when you see conflict in your team arising from conflicting values? There are no magic answers here in this small blog, but I think one of the most important things that can be done is to acknowledge the differences openly. Rather than hokey “team building” activities that involve making a bridge out of Popsicle sticks, individual and  group discovery sessions that identify individual and shared values can be a great way of identifying areas of compatibility as well as  potential minefields. From there, you can decide how to mitigate potential problems (if possible or necessary) or whether you can just focus on the strengths of the group to crowd them out.

by Veronica Ciolfi

We Cannot Be the Giving Tree


I never knew why, but part of me always hated the story The Giving Tree. It’s not that I don’t understand love. I have three wonderful boys and I would do anything for them. And it’s not just that it’s a sad story because both the boy and the tree are even somewhat happy in the end.

Maybe it’s that the Giving Tree gave everything to the boy and then that’s all it had. What if the boy lived another 20 years and wanted to keep coming back to the Tree, but because the Tree had given too much, it couldn’t give anymore?

That’s the problem with sacrificing yourself. You lay yourself down at whatever alter you chose with the belief that your sacrifice will define you, but I say that’s hogwash. It’s not the loss of you that defines you. It’s you. It’s your love, your passion, your ideas, your effort, and your relationships.

If you sacrifice your whole being just to satisfy the whim of a short-sighted boy (even if you love them more than your life) then you cannot give him anything more, even if he needs you more in the future.

As a leader sometimes we need to be like a tree. Strong. Standing tall. Ready to support our followers , whether they’re our children, our employees, our friends, or our students. But unlike the Giving Tree, we need to take care of ourselves. We can’t give everything away without demanding new fertilizer and water for ourselves. To not do so is short-sighted. Then we can only give so much. If we take care of ourselves and continue growing, we can support more people. We can let them reach even greater heights.

We’ve all known people who just want to keep giving. They can’t say no, even as it eats them away. I’ve been in the headspace as well—feeling like my worth was defined only by what I could provide for my family. Then a very wise man pointed out that I would never want my children to feel that way. They are precious and worth far more than just a sacrifice for someone else. Then he pointed out that the best way to teach them that was to Lead By Example.

Talk about a mind shift that knocked me off my feet.

So, what can we do? How can we keep going, keep giving and giving while still holding onto our spark?

We are social animals and many things about our evolution supports our need for other people. Meditation and a day at the spa may help relax us and give us focus, but I think a critical part of the recharging process is a great set of friends. Like batteries that get used up every time we give something of ourselves to another person, we need people that will help recharge us.



Feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling understood.  It involves someone giving something of them to us…their time, their ears, their patience, their effort or their silence. And that’s OK. We all need a group of people that we can call on to give us a bit of themselves, every once in a while. With friends, it’s give and take and it allows us to keep giving ourselves, over and over again.

The truly selfless act may be to be a little bit selfish, after all.


by Veronica Ciolfi

*Beautiful picture at the top by Jonathan Sammy.