The Self Identity Fetish

Dear E & V,

There is an odd tendency in our culture to seek out an everlasting identity, an “essence of self” that we can use to drive our purpose in life and describe ourselves to others. Most of these identifications have nothing to do with what a person has done or has created, and more to do with either an arbitrary physical or cultural attribute they decided to make the most important thing in their lives, or a random association that they just happened to fall into without intention:

I’m a fiery redhead.

I’m a Baltimore Ravens fan.

I’m a proud New Yorker.

I’m big and beautiful.

I’m a big strong man.

I’m a delicate woman.

See what I mean? People are proud of the fact that they’re from a certain area, even though they had no choice in that decision of where they were born. Others are proud of physical appearances that are arbitrary in their selection and took no effort on their part to cultivate. Why? Because it gave them a larger group to identify with. In a world that seems to be becoming more fractured and isolating, it’s nice to feel a sense of belonging no matter what random quality that belonging is based on. It’s much easier to cultivate an identity on feelings of belonging than it is to work hard to cultivate an identity based on virtue.

This in turn has lead to a whole cultural phenomena known as “finding yourself”. This is a journey that happens subconsciously in your teens as you seek to separate your concept of your self from that of your family; it’s biology’s way of turning you into an independent adult. It becomes more conscious as societal pressure kicks in and we seek to belong with a group outside of our family once we leave our homes. For a significant amount of the population, this happens at college which has turned from an institution of creative thought and exploration into a career preparation center. After spending four-plus years studying a small amount of the world, many young adults start to identify with their area of study because that is all they know at that point. They then naturally start to identify with their jobs upon starting their careers, in which they invest even more of their time. It’s natural for them to start to identify even more with their area of expertise as their lives start to revolve around their work, even if they don’t like their work. They fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy.

You can easily see this when you ask anyone to “Tell me about yourself?”, as the first sentence out of their mouth is almost always how they earn their living. “I’m a software developer for an insurance company.” “I’m an accountant with a Big 4 Firm.” “I’m an ER doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital.” They could have a million other interests and be much more excited about topics outside their jobs, but in their mind their identity is still tied to their careers. While that may be a sign of status to them, it’s still just as arbitrary as identifying yourself with your hair color or favorite baseball team. Passions are arbitrary, as we rarely have control over what excites us.

What people fail to realize is that identity shouldn’t be a state. Authentic identity, identity which is worth bragging about, is not a noun, it’s a verb. We are by nature in a constant state of flux in everything from our biochemical make-up to our spiritual and philosophical beliefs. What matters isn’t what you are now, but what you are becoming.

I’m a lawyer. I’m a soldier. I’m a first responder. I’m an inquisitive student. Okay. But I’m much more impressed with what you’re doing to be a good person and live a beautiful life. I would much rather hear: “I’m teaching myself how to play the piano” or “I donate my time to working at the soup kitchen” or “I show people how to make the best of their lives given the obstacles in front of them”. That shows people that you strive to make yourself a better person and that you actively seek to make the world a better place.

Identity is hard work which means that it isn’t about finding, it’s about becoming. And despite what we’re constantly told by the people around us, it’s not something that you find out in four years of college or by backpacking across South America. It’s a constant process of learning what you like and don’t like, of what your strengths and weaknesses are, and most importantly, how you can use all those things to make a positive change in the world.

You may assume that you are fulfilling your role [in life] if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

R. Buckminster Fuller

Rarely will “the highest advantage of others” be what you’re doing in your 9-5 job. Jobs were created to fill generic roles, and most of the time your experiences and strengths go beyond what advantage you can give to others in those generic roles. It’s hard to thrive in a role created by someone else because it requires you to fit their view of what the advantages of that role should be to others. If you’re in the work world, and you at some point will be, then this is an important point when it comes to the differences between leaders and managers. Managers try to fit employees into the pre-conceived view of what a role entails, while leaders create roles based on the strengths of the people they’re leading. When you get to the point in your life when you’re tasked with taking care of others in their careers (or in life in general), this is a point you’ll want to keep in mind.

The job tangent aside, creating an identity which is dedicated to the highest advantage of others will rarely have anything to do with an arbitrary state of your life, career, geographic location, physical appearance, or any other attribute that you didn’t choose to intentionally cultivate. You have to move beyond thinking of identity as a role you fall into and instead promote the intentional creation of it through character-building actions.

These actions take on any number of forms, and doesn’t have to be the stereotypical homeless shelter volunteer, though that happens to be a very noble cause. You can write a book sharing your struggles with depression. You can teach a class on how to cook. You can start your own business. You can spend 15 minutes a day motivating people on an internet forum. You can pick up trash around your neighborhood. You can fight for diversity and equality in your workplace.

It doesn’t have to be big, and you don’t have to get public accolades for it. Whether you know it or not, someone or something out there is appreciating your dedication to making the world a better place. And that sounds like a much better way to create your self identity than by what kind of car you drive.



P.S. A warning about creating a beautiful and virtuous life: nothing makes it less beautiful and virtuous than when you brag about all the good you’re doing. That’s called “virtue signaling” and makes you look like a giant ass.


Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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