Tell Me What You Are, Not What You’re Not


I had a really great half-drunken discussion at a party in LA over a year ago wherein a biologist told me why he doesn’t like to be called an Atheist, despite the fact that he technically is.

“I don’t like to be identified by what I’m not, I prefer to take on labels that say what I am.”

This discussion has had a significant impact on me (which is hopefully clear from the fact that I still remember it in detail a year later), as the point is so simple yet oft-ignored.

When we identify ourselves by what we are not rather than what we are, we put limitations on ourselves and tell others little except that we are contrary people.

Using a more trendy example to emphasize the point, say someone tells me that they hate the iPhone.

What exactly have I learned about this person?

I’ve learned that they don’t like the iPhone – for whatever reason – but wouldn’t I have learned more if they would have told me they are big fans of Android phones? Or prefer Blackberries to the alternatives? All I get from this statement is negativity, while if they would have focused on a statement of what they actually enjoy, I would have been able to glean more useful information from the conversation.

Back to the original example, if I say that I am somewhat of a Rationalist and a bit of a Humanist, this implies much, including that I focus more on the Secular than the Faith-Based philosophies, but it doesn’t go out and slap anyone else (or their beliefs) in the face, either.

And perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t limit me. If I were to be given rational evidence of the existence of a Higher Being, for example, the Atheist me would have to change my belief system completely, whereas Rationalist Humanist me is able to continue on, philosophies still intact.

Don’t limit yourself by telling others what you’re not, instead tell them what you are. Try this for a week and see how you feel.

I’ve found it to be immensely liberating.

What are you?


  1. Wow, no wonder you remembered that conversation; I've never thought the word 'atheist' in that way before. It's sort of making me think back to conversations I've had, where, for whatever reason, someone's mentioned that they're an atheist. And the conversation stopped awkwardly before moving on to something else. They'd basically just told me that religion and spirituality were a closed subject to them; that they weren't interested. Describing yourself as a Klingon or a Jedi would have at least shown some . . . something. Then again, in one some way, atheism is as much of a religion as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam. It's a belief system.

    As networkers who are never off duty, it's something we need to be really aware of. You'd never walk in to a job interview and tell them all the things you weren't interested in, or worse, all the things you couldn't do.

  2. Love this Colin. Positivity has an amazing effect on what you can actually accomplish. Focusing on what you CAN do rather than what you can't is incredibly empowering.

  3. :) I like how many remarkable discussions begin with a healthy dose of alcohol mixed with a fun variety of folks with different belief systems. The concoction is intoxicating.

    I'll have to keep this in mind, Colin, about not limiting ourselves by telling others who we are not, rather than the much more interesting side of who we actually are. We can't assume that by telling others who we are not that they will automatically assume the opposite must hold true. That may not be the case after all. Better off just being ourselves and being authentic.

  4. Brilliant! I am an inspirator, i.e. I try to inspire people by instigating an emotional reaction from them.

    Also, I love my iPhone.

  5. I find this a pretty powerful way to live, thank you for sharing.

    What immediately fell into my mind as I was reading is the power in following what you want, instead of running from what you don't want. Both pleasure and fear can be powerful motivators, but I believe moving toward what you want is in more alignment with truth.

    Gotta ask… whats with the BigAZ Burgers pic?

  6. I can honestly say I've never thought of this. Great insights as usual, Colin. I will definitely keep this in mind. And by the way I love the Big Az Burger photo. They were sold in my college cafe, never bought one as they look disgusting, but the name always gave me a little chuckle.

  7. Hey Colin,

    Why identify yourself through labels, regardless of the approach?

    I prefer to say that I behave in a certain way or believe something at the time, in order to leave the possibility open for change in the future. In my mind, the more openminded and accepting of change we are, the better.

    For example, why not state the ideas (and ideals) you believe in, rather than defining them through labels such as Rationalist or Humanist?

    If you're interested, I wrote more about my thoughts on the subject here:


  8. Good point, but I would argue that even laying claim to ideas or ideals is labeling, even if it's slapping a sticker that says 'guy who believes this' on you, rather than the much cleaner 'Humanist' or 'Rationalist.'

    No way around that, I'm afraid.

  9. Thanks for reading :)

    And I agree, moving forward instead of putting up walls seems to be the way to get ahead in my mind.

    I figured the pic would kind of fit, as the packaging says what it is. Not anything too deep in this case, I'm afraid!

  10. I wouldn't say that Atheism is a's more of a lack of a belief system (at least until you hear some other descriptor that tells you something about what they believe). And that's where it's lacking, really, because so what if you don't approve of something? I'm not a big fan of murder, but how many people are? It tells you very little about me.

    It's amazing to me how many people only talk about what they don't like, especially online. It's one big whine-fest, and when that's all I see slathered all over a social network profile, I'm immediately turned off from the person in question.

  11. Yup, focusing on the positive is definitely the way to go. What am I? Well, after teaching kids for the past 6 hours, I'm a little sleepy :)

  12. Good morning Colin, I hate to disagree when I'm so new to your site . . . but I'm going to!

    I will re-word a little though. In my opinion, atheism is as much a belief system (ok, maybe not religion) as say, Christianity. There may be varying definitions of the word atheist, but as I take it, an atheist is someone who believes that there are no gods or deities. Devout christians and serious atheists both BELIEVE in their side of the debate, but neither has any proof, so to speak. Neither is open to the possibility that there is something other than that which they beleive.

    It's actually much easier to attempt to prove the existence of something than it is to provide evidence that something definitely does not exist.

    Taking this into considertion, roughly 3% of me still believes in the Tooth Fairy, 12% in unicorns and I'm 50/50 on the Father Christmas debate.

  13. Good morning!

    You make a good point, and I agree about it being a belief system (since it does include the belief that there is nothing mulling around up there), but I would argue that because the burden of proof lay with the person making the claim that there IS something (in this case, people who believe in the supernatural or spiritual), that believing there is nothing falls more squarely into the 'default' category. They've seen nothing to convince them that there is something there, and if a child isn't told about religion, they would be in that same category, though there's little chance they would come up with Christianity on their own.

    So while what you say is true, I still think calling atheism a belief system (anti-belief-system seems to fit better in my mind) is a bit of a stretch (and actually has been an argument used by religious folk to discredit non-believers for some time, though I know that's definitely not what's intended here!).

  14. It is our propensity to tell what we are not rather than who we are. Perhaps it is our defense mechanism when others see our difference. However, I agree with your wisdom here but I must admit that it will take awareness to practice this. :-)

  15. That’s a hard one.
    Especially when u realize you are limiting yurself not only at life and work but also at what you use, taste and everything else.
    It requires a lot of awerness.

  16. Colin dude i first want to echo @Nate the Big Az burger took me back to my college cafe as well nice memory flood there. This was a great post i especially enjoyed the part about no telling me what you’re not because that basically projects the negative and also puts you in a limiting position. Also really enjoyed the rationalist/humanist example definitely something to chew on. Keep Shining bro!

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  18. One of my most favorite ways to notice a person in first conversation… Listening to the limitations they put on themselves. Shocks me to see that many people still do not see that what you say plays into what you actually end up feeling capable of doing.

  19. What about vegans and vegetarians? Are they saying something negative about themselves when they tell you they don’t eat meat? I feel like my atheism is a big part of who I am and I don’t feel as though it limits me. I also don’t consider it a slap in the face to other people’s beliefs any more that telling someone “I am muslim” is a slap in the face to Christians. Or saying ” I am a Democrat” is a slap in the face to republicans.

    I understand the “I hate iphones” point. That is a clear negative, and doesn’t tell you anything about the person. But “I am an atheist” does and so does “I am a vegan.”

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