Peeling off labels

With my first anniversary at Peloton approaching, I’ve been thinking about how labels and titles shape internal narratives. Reflecting on my career and the various jobs I’ve held, I realized that the way the industry talks about jobs, and to some extent ourselves, needs to shift. For example, my online bios used to follow the cookie-cutter “X at Y. Previously A, B, and C.” template, where X is some title, and {Y, A, B, C} are companies. This template has since been consciously refactored to building Y…“. I have way more to offer than the ceiling under which “iOS Engineer” places me. The intent here isn’t external validation, but rather to be intellectually honest about whether the labels I hold—voluntarily or involuntarily—are the right ones and peeling off the ones that don’t fit anymore. Let’s explore this nuance a bit.

The Power of Labels

Why introspect labels in the first place? Because they often have implicit power in affecting internal dialogues. Ancestrally, humans rely on the security that static traits provide, especially with regard to identity and labels for a sense of control. For instance, let’s break down the label of being introverted. “I am an introvert.“ “I’ve always been on the introverted side.” Typically, introversion comes across as something that one “has,” as if it were some sort of possession held indefinitely1. I’ve tried to look at it from a slightly different lens. “I (occasionally) need time to be on my own.” The latter is more malleable and hints at introversion being a function of our social activity instead of a fixed trait.

Moreover, a second-order effect of labels is narrowing/expanding expectations. Consider the earlier “iOS Engineer” example. While the “iOS“ prefix seems benign in the context of a great culture, it could accidentally carve an invisible sphere of expectation around an engineer in a company with mediocre values. If she wanted to contribute to the backend codebase, that team might gatekeep contributions with less-welcoming scrutiny. Make no mistake, the root issue at hand in this example is a lack of sound company values, but sticking with broader labels such as “engineer” can shatter these invisible spheres and encourage cross-team interaction and ownership.

Spotting (And Questioning) Labels

I find that half the effort in adjusting labels, narratives, and beliefs I hold are noticing them in the first place. Mental noting has been vital here. At its core, noting involves gently2 applying a tag (e.g. “feeling”, “thinking“, etc.) to a thought when it arises in the mind. Doing so creates a sort of distance from it and can reveal patterns of thought. Taking this a step further, it’s been helpful to reflect on whether or not a pattern is doing harm. I’m not advocating judging one’s thoughts, but instead being truthful with oneself in questioning them.

A prompt I’ve used—which has lead to many pregnant pauses—is “who am I without this label, narrative, or belief?” As a concrete example, this question has helped me avoid conflating media narratives about 2017 with my own:

A great year and pleasant reflection with close friends last night. If you're "troubled" by 2016, make sure you're not confusing media narratives with your own life. Here's to making 2017 better with my tribe 💪🏽

A post shared by Arjun Balaji (@arjunblj) on

Identity Minimization

There’s a concept in physics that objects have a moment of inertia. An item’s “moment” is proportional to its particles’ mass and distance from an axis of rotation. The larger an object’s moment, the harder it is to rotate. This is why figure skaters bring their arms inward when going for faster spins; it lowers their moment of inertia. Why take this digression? Because I think there might be an analog here for the labels we hold. That is, I’ve noticed when I cling onto many labels it is harder for me to change. This lends itself to a sort of “identity minimization.” The fewer boxes I pack myself into, the more readily I’ll be able to unpack any situation that comes my way.

If I’m More Than an “iOS Engineer,” What Am I?

I’m still sitting with this question. For now, I’m personally content with “Building Peloton.” But, this is super ambiguous in the workplace (and when it comes to pay grades). “Product engineer” could be fitting, given that I spend a lot of time in our users’ shoes (literally, I try to clip into the bike a couple of times a week to experience Peloton’s touch points).

But, I hope to eventually delineate our company’s strategy—at an executive level—to help users build better versions of themselves. So, I’ll likely have to reevaluate my upcoming label if/when I get there.

Culturally, we tend to espouse “holding“ onto things, from labels, beliefs, narratives, and values. However, it’s been helpful for me to occasionally take a step back and remember that these shouldn’t be treated as possessions held indefinitely. Learning to shed those labels doing a disservice is almost as valuable as forming them in the first place. After all, we change year over year. Our personal frames of reference should too.

Special thanks to Kate, Jason, and Will for reading early drafts of this entry.

⇒ Two additional nuanced examples demonstrating the power of labels/phrasing:

  1. The finiteness of (some) labels is often forgotten. This crops up a lot in mental health. Chemical forms of common conditions aside, it’s tempting to unquestioningly conclude “I have X or Y.” A more helpful narrative might be “I’m going through {a rough patch, a period of stress, etc.}.” This relinquishes the power of X/Y in being some condition held ad infinitum and can provide a much-needed ounce of agency. 

  2. A tip that Andy Puddicombe espouses in Headspace is that noting isn’t meant to be exhaustive. Racing to label every thought is a losing battle. It’s way easier for me to sit with the ones that stick around.