Meditations on programming, startups, and technology
New Relic

Of labels and limits

In an attempt to satisfy our need for identity and belonging, we desperately try to wear as many labels as possible, and to a certain extent labels are a necessity. When people ask you what you do for a living, it’s far easier to reply “I’m a computer programmer” than to try and explain the plurality and complexity of the exact criteria of your job.

The problem with labels is that they can place you in a box, at times greatly limiting who and what you are. So while it’s okay to use labels to efficiently communicate with other people, it’s important not to fall into the trap of taking them too seriously, thus letting them become who you are – or are not.

It’s not the label per se, but rather our perception of what our identification with a given role implies. If I identify myself too strongly as a “rubyist” I may not be inclined to recognize the good that is found elsewhere in other programming languages, or worse still, reject such good in an attempt to defend the choice I opted to identify myself with. This inclination is the basis of many of the “religious wars” you see online.

I sometimes find myself in the odd predicament of limiting myself because of some label or assumption of what “a person like me” can and cannot do. In such instances though I’m reminded of a few stories about courageous individuals who went beyond labels, above the layer of conventionality, breaking what common sense would have considered a “difficult to challenge” limit. I’m reminded of blind people who took on photography and managed to be successful at it, or of a black kid of Kenyan origins who managed to become the President of the United States of America. But there is one story in particular that always gets me, it’s the story of Django Reinhardt, after whom the the popular Python framework was named.

Django was a Gypsy jazz guitarist who was severely injured in a fire when he was eighteen. As a result of this accident his right leg was paralyzed and the third and fourth fingers on his left hand were severely burned. Doctors recommended amputating his leg and were pretty darn sure that he would never play guitar again due to the extensive damage to his hand. Django refused the amputation though and left the hospital as soon as he could. Within a year he was able to walk again, albeit with the aid of a cane. Even more surprisingly, despite being “disabled” in his left hand, he persisted through the pain to practice his beloved instrument. He went on to reinvent the conventional approach to guitar playing by performing solos with the use of only two fingers, using his half-paralyzed fingers for chord work. Today Django is considered one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century.

I’ve learned to consciously fight the urge to limit myself. Whatever labels you feel may be cutting your potential short or holding you back, I encourage you to break free and rise above them. Does doing so mean you’ll reinvent the way a musical instrument is played, reshape the course of history or become a hero in your field? Perhaps, but even if it doesn’t, your own life stands to become richer and freer because you decided not to live within the confines of a label.

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5 Responses to “Of labels and limits”

  1. Interesting post, as always…
    It sounds like a sort of “disruptive innovation” to me, under some standpoints.

  2. Alan says:

    Thanks, I found this very inspiring. I’m a college dropout and my personal label is “dropout”. You are right that I shouldn’t be limited by this.

  3. Grant says:

    Great post Antonio. I watched a documentary on Django about a year ago and labels didn’t affect his ability to “make a difference”.

    Two weeks ago I spent a day in a Toronto high school and I was very impressed with the programming skills of the students, but I was even more impressed with their creativity and communication skills.

    They where programming in Java of course, but the language itself was not the important part of the learning.

  4. Nice. Somehow similar to “Keep Your Identity Small”:

  5. Marco Romagnoli says:

    Thanks a lot Antonio!
    From a some time too much labelled “computer programmer” :-)

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