The Actionable Version of “Keep Your Identity Small”

(cross posted on my roam blog)

There’s an old Paul Gra­ham Es­say, “Keep Your Iden­tity Small”. It’s short so it’s worth it to read the whole thing right now if you’ve never seen it. The yis­b­ifiefyb (“yeah it’s short but i’m func­tion­ally illiter­ate ex­cept for your blog”) is roughly “When some­thing be­comes part of your iden­tity, you be­come dumber. Don’t make things part of your iden­tity.”

I read that post some time in high school and thought, “Of course! You’re so right Paul Gra­ham. Cool, now I’ll never iden­tify as any­thing.” I still think that Paul Gra­ham is point­ing out a real cluster of Things That Hap­pen With Peo­ple, but over time the con­cept of iden­tity, and iden­ti­fy­ing as BLANK have started to feel less clear. It feels right to say “Peo­ple get dumb when their iden­tity is challenged” and it even feels sorta ax­io­matic. Isn’t that what it means for some­thing to be part of your iden­tity? Think­ing about it more I came up with a bunch of differ­ent ways of think­ing of my­self that all felt like iden­ti­fy­ing as BLANK, but it felt like un­nec­es­sary drop­ping of nu­ance to smoosh them all into the sin­gle con­cept of iden­tity.

Iden­tity Menagerie

Lets look at some ex­am­ples of what iden­ti­fy­ing as a BLANK can look like:

  • Blake: “I do Cross Fit. ”

  • Jane: “I’m smart. In fact I’m nor­mally among the smartest in the room. I’m able to solve a lot of prob­lems by just find­ing a clever solu­tion to them in­stead of hav­ing to get stuck in grunt work. Peo­ple of­ten show awe and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for my depth and breadth of knowl­edge.”

  • Jay: “I the peace­keeper, the one always hold­ing the group to­gether.”


Steve An­dreas out­lines the idea of a self-con­cept quite nicely:

Your self-con­cept is a sort of map of who you are. Like any other map, it is always a very sim­plified ver­sion of the ter­ri­tory. [...] Your self-con­cept, your “map” you have of your­self, has the same pur­pose as a map of a city—to keep you ori­ented in the world and help you find your way, par­tic­u­larly when events are challeng­ing or difficult.

The thing you’ll no­tice is it’s nigh im­pos­si­ble to avoid hav­ing a self-con­cept. When Jane thinks of her­self and how she can act on the world, “be­ing smart” is a chunk of self-con­cept that sum­ma­rizes a lot of her ex­pe­riences and that she uses to guide de­ci­sions she makes.

Kaj So­tala has a good post about how tweak­ing and mod­ify­ing his self-con­cept helped fix parts of his de­pres­sion and anx­iety.

Group Identity

This is the ob­vi­ous one that we’re all used to. Blake does Cross Fit, hangs out with cross fit peo­ple all the time, and loves tel­ling peo­ple about all this. All of his Cross Fit bud­dies sup­port each other and give each other praise for be­ing part of such an awe­some group. Some­one call­ing Cross Fit stupid would feel like some­one call­ing him and all of his friends stupid. It would be big and difficult change for Blake to get out of Cross Fit, given that’s where most of his so­cial cir­cle is, and where all his free time goes.

In­tel­li­gent So­cial Web

Here’s Val de­scribing what he calls the In­tel­li­gent So­cial Web:

I sus­pect that im­prov works be­cause we’re do­ing some­thing a lot like it pretty much all the time. The web of so­cial re­la­tion­ships we’re em­bed­ded in helps define our roles as it forms and in­cludes us. And that same web, as the dis­tributed “di­rec­tor” of the “scene”, guides us in what we do. A lot of (but not all) peo­ple get a strong hit of this when they go back to visit their fam­ily. If you move away and then make new friends and sort of be­come a new per­son (!), you might at first think this is just who you are now. But then you visit your par­ents… and sud­denly you feel and act a lot like you did be­fore you moved away. You might even try to hold onto this “new you” with them… and they might re­spond to what they see as strange be­hav­ior by try­ing to nudge you into act­ing “nor­mal”: ig­nor­ing sur­pris­ing things you say, chang­ing the topic to some­thing fa­mil­iar, start­ing an old fight, etc.

This feels like an­other im­por­tant facet of iden­tity, one that doesn’t just ex­ist in your head, but in the heads of those around you.

Iden­tity as a Strat­egy for meet­ing your needs

In mid­dle school and high school I built up a very par­tic­u­lar iden­tity. I bet if you con­versed with high school me, you wouldn’t be able to pin me down to us­ing any par­tic­u­lar phrase, la­bel, or group to iden­tify my­self as. And yet, there are ways of be­ing you could have asked me to try that would have scared the shit out of me. Al­most as if… my iden­tity was un­der at­tack....

So new take, one I con­sider more pro­duc­tive. Reread Paul Gra­hams es­say and re­place ev­ery in­stance of “iden­tity” with “main strat­egy to meet one’s needs”. Hm­mmm, it’s start­ing to click. If you’ve been a preacher for 40 years, and all you know is preach­ing, and most of your needs are met by your church com­mu­nity, an at­tack on the church is an at­tack on your liveli­hood and well-be­ing.

I ex­pect hav­ing your “iden­tity” un­der at­tack to feel similar to be­ing a hunter gath­erer and watch­ing the only river that you’ve known in your life dry­ing up. Fear and Panic. What are you go­ing to do know? Will you sur­vive? Where are the good things in your life go­ing to come from?

When you frame it like this, you can see how eas­ily try­ing to KYIS could lead to stuff that just hurts you. If I only have one way of get­ting peo­ple to like me (say, be­ing funny), I can’t just sud­denly de­cide not to care if peo­ple don’t con­sider me funny. I can’t just sud­denly not care if peo­ple stop laugh­ing at my jokes. Both of those events mean I no longer have a func­tional strat­egy to be liked.

A very con­crete pre­dic­tion of this type of think­ing: some­one will be clingy and pro­tec­tive over a part of their be­hav­ior to the de­gree that it is the sole source of meet­ing XYZ im­por­tant needs.

KYIS is not ac­tion­able advice

The take away from Paul Gra­ham is “don’t let some­thing be­come you iden­tity”. How do you do that? I thought it meant some­thing like “Never self iden­tity as a BLANK”, to oth­ers or to your­self. Boom. Done. And yet, even though I never talked about be­ing part of one group or an­other, I still went through life a de­cent chunk of life bank­ing on “Be funny, act un­flap­pable, be com­pe­tent at the ba­sic stuff” as the only/​main strat­egy for meet­ing my needs.

The ac­tion­able ad­vice might be some­thing like, “slowly de­velop a multi-faceted con­fi­dence in your abil­ity to han­dle what life throws at you, via ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing and see­ing re­sults.” That’s waaaaaay harder to do than just not iden­ti­fy­ing with a group, but it does a bet­ter jump of point­ing you in the di­rec­tion that mat­ters. I ex­pect that when Paul Gra­ham wrote that es­say he already had a pretty strong con­fi­dence in his abil­ity to meet his needs. From that van­tage point, you can eas­ily let go of iden­tities, be­cause they aren’t your life lines.

There can be much more to iden­tity than what I’ve laid out, but I think the redi­rect I’ve given is one that is a great first step for any­one dwelling on iden­tity, or for any­one who head the KYIS ad­vice and earnestly tried to im­ple­ment it, yet found mys­te­ri­ous ways it wasn’t work­ing.