There are certain things that have become part of your identity. This is true whether you consider yourself a writer, programmer, teacher, or artist. The list is infinite. We all identify as something.

Identities are simplifications of how we view ourselves and want others to view us.

Challenges to Consider

This isn't the first essay written on the topic of identity. Paul Graham wrote an excellent one in 2008 titled Keep Your Identity Small, which should be required reading for high-school seniors. In this short read, he makes several good points:

If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.

As mentioned in the related Hacker News discussion, it seems like Paul may be focused on "allegiances" rather than identity in the context of a career. With that being said, there's lots of wisdom here.

When you adopt an identity, you limit your ability to synthesize information without bias. Your identity will tell you to think a certain way and to consider all perspectives equally, you have to fight against that.

James Clear touches on identity as well in his latest book, Atomic Habits, where he agrees with Paul's take on this:

The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism.

As our identity becomes stronger, so do the lengths we are willing to go to in defense of it when challenged. This hinders our ability to look at the world with fresh eyes.

Identity as an Advantage

This may come as a surprise, but identity isn't all bad news. If there weren't advantages as well then I wouldn't be writing this, now would I?

When your identity is aligned with the type of person you want to be, it provides you with guardrails for your actions.

You are more likely to go to the gym if you identify as someone who works out. You aren't fighting an uphill battle every time you perform the action. You are simply acting in line with who you think you are. Your identity becomes the default, and defaults matter.

Once again, James Clear echoes this in Atomic Habits:

With outcome-based habits, the focus is on what you want to achieve. With identity-based habits, the focus is on who you wish to become.
Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.

Identity gives you blinders when you're pushing towards a specific idea or goal. It motivates you. It holds you to a certain standard. It gives you a source of pride.

When I got my first job offer, I was proud to call myself a data scientist, but I had adopted that as my identity years prior. Identity solidified my direction. This is a powerful tool, but as mentioned earlier, it can be dangerous.

The Balancing Act of Identity

We have talked about the benefits and perils of identity as a concept. But the question remains: How should we think about identity in our lives?

We know that identity can hinder our ability to avoid unnecessary bias. We also know that it can be an asset for ensuring we achieve our goals. Is there a way that we can have our cake and eat it too?

I think so.

You may have heard the saying, "strong opinions, weakly held" at some point. This framework is a popular one, and for good reason. Coined by Stanford professor Paul Saffo, it offers a different way of thinking:

Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect. This is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then, and this is the ‘weakly held’ part, prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction.

When we apply this same thinking to identity, something interesting happens.

We allow ourselves to have strong identities, no matter how imperfect. These should align with our goals and the person we want to be. This strong identity gives us our focus.

Then, we should be willing to drop those identities when they don't align with our goals anymore. When indicators are pointing in a different direction, drop it and move on to the next thing.

  • Adopt strong identities that align with your goals
  • Be ready and willing to drop them when necessary

It's that simple, but it's never as easy as it sounds. At the end of the day, we are complex creatures. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes.

Our identities should reflect that.

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