The Actionable Version of “Keep Your Identity Small”
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.
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.
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.