Tom Critchlow
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The power of labels

How naming & labels can create powerful internal and external forces for independent workers

September 17, 2018

One of the greatest emotions that comes with being self-employed is being free. Free to choose work, clients, hours, location. Freedom to be your own boss. Freedom to make decisions.

But this freedom comes with a very closely-felt sense of being un-tethered. Of being adrift at sea with the fathomless ocean below and no coast in sight.

This is nothing new. Naming is powerful (of course!) and labels can define more than just who you are but who you will become (of course!).

But from conversations with others who are charting their own course it’s a common train of thought - the two part question of what do you do and how do you describe what you do?

This naming, framing and labeling is powerful. I used to think that it was mostly as an exercise in positioning - i.e. in helping others place you on their mental map. A dot, or point or region they can understand in relation to others.

But I’m increasingly beginning to think this naming is most powerful not for placing you on a map - but rather in constructing the entire map in the first place! On creating dimensions, scales, vectors, paths and regions on an infinite plane - one that we can begin to chart and navigate and ultimately begin to call… a map.

And of course - the map is fluid. Islands emerge, regions are explored that you have never seen before, the landscape changes.

Most importantly - the map is not, and should not, be designed to fully encompass and define the today - but rather to plot the stars and create the journeys of tomorrow. The label(s) you use to describe yourself provide a sense of place and being internally but the label also provides a call to action - a mandate and vision for what the future could be.

My own progress here

I’ve floundered around the idea of positioning, labeling, naming and more over the past few years while I’ve been self employed. It’s a fun noodling exercise that is never finished. But I have noticed some reason changes. From a proposal I sent out last week:

This concept of “media design through strategy and stewardship” is starting to feel good for me. Who cares how this lands with the client - this is the map (one of the maps) I carry around in my pocket to guide the way forward.

This talk from Sara Hendren from 2016 is wonderful - she talks about this very idea of naming by threading a narrative through Jane Addams and Jacques Cousteau and others. It’s wonderful and full of lots of lovely details:

Eyeo 2016 – Sara Hendren from Eyeo Festival on Vimeo.

And this talk from Robin Sloan in 2012 where he talks about the term “media inventor” and surveys his own projects and motivations and why media inventor became his label:

Robin Sloan - Inventing Media from Build on Vimeo.

Scratching the surface is my current favourite podcast and is hosted by Jarrett Fuller. The podcast is about architecture, design and writing. But more than that - almost every single episode focuses on someone’s struggle, journey and adventure in balancing, naming and exploring doing, making, work, projects, studio practice, writing, expression and more. I can’t recommend it highly enough! (And of course both Sara and Robin have been guests).

Up next - I’ve not received it yet but recommended by both Jarrett and Sara I just ordered Future Practice by Rory Hyde which sounds like it explores so many of these same tensions and ideas.

What is your personal label? How do you define the internal landscape of your work, your practice?


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.