Nature, nurture or neither? The power of titles

What is in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Human resources department across America have been forced to ponder William Shakespeare’s question as the demand for and supply of creative titles has proliferated in our millennial-filled workplaces. Titles like “ninja”, “rockstar”, and “magician” have become common place. This shift in corporate and startup culture alike provokes the question of how much titles influence behavior, and vice-versa. Psychology and history both have something to say about this question.

Titles vs. labels vs. names

Titles are an indication of what an organization ascribes to your role. And it could be argued that names and labels play a similar role of indicating expectations of an individual. So we will explore the history and research of the impacts of each.

What is in a name?

Names hold great significance in the Bible and Torah, indicating family history, identity and personality. Re-naming in both books also indicates a transformation in the person’s life. Still, it is not entirely clear from the stories what to conclude about the roles of nature and nurture, whether the name shapes one’s destiny, or whether one defines the ultimate meaning of their name.

Recent academic research by Steven Levitt of Freakonomics posits that there is no relationship between a person’s name and their life outcomes. This is colorfully illustrated by the stories of Winner and Loser Lane, brothers whose life outcomes were opposite to their birth names. Loser was a winner, a star student and athlete who joined the NYPD. Winner was a loser, living a life oscillating between incarceration and homelessness.

Boxing people in.

Adjacent to names are “labels”, categorizations that we place people in. And labels have been seen to have significant effects on perception. According to the linguistic relativity hypothesis “the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just idle placeholders–they actually determine what we see.” Social psychology research has demonstrated the impact of labeling on social treatment. In a 1963 study, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that teachers labeling students as “smart” or “slow” changed their academic trajectory, positively impacting the IQ of “smart” students by 10-15 points over the course of a year. They called this impact the expectancy effect: once you label someone something, you expect that attribute of them, and you perceive and encourage more of what you expect.

Titles in social contexts.

Popular wisdom posits that job titles are closer to labels – they affect how people treat you inside and outside of a company. With half of Americans gaining their sense of identity from their job title, many individuals are giving power to their titles to impact their sense of importance and self-worth. Yet this does not need to be the case; one’s actions and implicit role can shape perception of titles more than the title itself.

The history of the title “president”

The role of president was intended to be fairly minor at the outset of the American republic. When deciding the title of our founding father, George Washington, The House of Representatives was adamant that he have a simple title. Whereas the Senate proposed “His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties”, the House demanded removal of any attribution resembling monarchy rule. “President” was reasonably diminutive; a local bridge club could have a president. The title simply meant a person who presided over an organization.

Yet over time, the role and how the president has acted has changed the meaning of the title. Today, there is much less distance from the term “king” as was originally expected and intended. In part, the actions that presidents have taken have given them greater authority. FDR’s New Deal created an era of big government, also attributing greater responsibility to the president. Nixon was said to have expanded the power of the president beyond that of any predecessor, expanding decision-making in foreign affairs and exercising greater budgetary and programmatic power. Beyond how presidents have shaped the power of the office, the office came with inherent authority to set priorities and issue rules, which drove a natural evolution of the office. In other words, the office was always intended to have significant power.

Your title, your role

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

— William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Whether your title confers great responsibility to you or not, you will have opportunities to shape your own role and story in your work. Yes, your title will impact first impressions and expectations inside and outside of your company. But no one’s abilities, role, and trajectory are completely summarized by their title. So call yourself Wonder Woman if it get you up in the morning, as long as you are living into a fulfilling role and not being limited by it’s titling.

Keeping social media from steeling your vacation

Unhashtag your vacation

I noticed a bold ad campaign at 14th St. for a city not a lot of people talk about. It’s a city I’ve been to, the home of Mozart, with airy music chambers graced by string quartets and delicious chocolate deserts. Things that are engage the senses beyond sight. Their ad campaign slogan is “unhashtag your vacation”. Their campaign images use a hashtag like a strike-through. They suggest to the viewers that they should engage with experiences personally rather than positioning them for personal branding on social media.

These ads are a bold statement – speaking to America, the birthplace of Mad Men, in our own language – marketing. Because social media has literally become dangerous.

Death by selfie

The viral photo of the queue of mountaineers waiting to take their selfies at the summit of Mt. Everest, and also struggling for oxygen, has shocked the world into a moment of reflection.

Eleven deaths resulted from the excess of wealthy adventurers. Have vacations been reduced to photo ops for bragging rights?

In the same moment, Vienna is challenging us to think about the purpose of vacations and the role of photography – big questions in a world with a growing middle-class and a camera on every personal device. To answer these big questions, it’s worth walking back to the land before digital photography and the world before social media, which I grew up in.

My journey from photography to social media

My first experiences traveling were on middle school trips. My parents let me borrow their film-based camera, and I took as many as 3 roles of film for a 3 day trip to places like Salem, Massachusetts and Washington, DC. With film, you never knew how a photo would come out until it was processed, so I erred on the side of volume. I assumed everything was interesting, worth capturing and documenting, from store fronts to tourist attractions to friends. Eventually I realized that my documentary style photography was a little extreme, and only ~10% of the photos had strong visual interest – I wasn’t even looking at most of the photos! In high school, I had fewer field trips and was more selective about what I photographed. My photography became anthropocentric, capturing natural moments that I valued and events that were firsts or celebratory. I made my favorite photos into little gifts, which friends loved. They were personal moments made special, for private consumption.

When digital photography arose in my college years, I had opportunities to travel again and work in other countries in the summers. My first digital camera was quickly stolen, and when I finally acquired a new one, I was more sparse and selective about what I photographed. Only the most beautiful sites that I would not want to forget. The misted mountains of Machu Picchu. The colorful sands of the Atacama Desert. Enchanting sights that I had never imagined existed, let alone having the chance to visit.

As I was starting to travel, social media was on the rise. This meant, for the first time, large scale external feedback, for better or for worse. I joined the fray of “look how awesome a time I’m having” posts for a while, but found myself naturally limiting my Facebook consumption to one hour a week. Yet I found that hour to be mostly an unhappy one. I told myself I was keeping up with friends, but increasingly just felt left out of all the fun people were having without me. But business school amplified my use and, thus, the detrimental effects of social media, which have now become well documented.

I now sit in the in-between. Sometimes I feel like I should participate in social media because my peers do, yet it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I see lots of photos of food with hundreds of likes, yet when I take similar photos they feel uncompelling, and I never post them. It feels strange, creating content that has become part of our typical virtual communication, but it feeling entirely forced and artificial. Increasingly, I try to eat my chocolate cake without photographing it, too.

Vacation for vacation’s sake

It goes without saying, vacations are more than just selfie opportunities. They are about your being present in a refreshing setting, not about the social media story you tell about it. I used to take a ton of photos and go through roles of film. Then I realized I was neither stopping to look at the photos nor stopping to really soak in the sites I was visiting. Vacations should not be about the external feedback that social media provides. What is most important is the internal moments of reflection, observation, and appreciation that they offer. And the same is true of our weekends, our moments with family and close friends, and every joie de vivre.