Use Your Identity Carefully

In Keep Your Identity Small, Paul Graham argues against associating yourself with labels (i.e. “libertarian,” “feminist,” “gamer,” “American”) because labels constrain what you’ll let yourself believe. It’s a wonderful essay that’s led me to make concrete changes in my life. That said, it’s only about 90% correct. I have two issues with Graham’s argument; one is a semantic quibble, but it leads into the bigger issue, which is a tactic I’ve used to become a better person.

Graham talks about the importance of identity in determining beliefs. This isn’t quite the right framework. I’m a fanatical consequentialist, so I care what actions people take. Beliefs can constrain actions, but identity can also constrain actions directly.

To give a trivial example from the past week in which beliefs didn’t matter: I had a self-image as someone who didn’t wear jeans or t-shirts. As it happens, there are times when wearing jeans is completely fine, and when other people wore jeans in casual settings, I knew it was appropriate. Nevertheless, I wasn’t able to act on this belief because of my identity. (I finally realized this was silly, consciously discarded that useless bit of identity, and made a point of wearing jeans to a social event.)

Why is this distinction important? If we’re looking at identify from an action-centered framework, this recommends a different approach from Graham’s.

Do you want to constrain your beliefs? No; you want to go wherever the evidence pushes you. “If X is true, I desire to believe that X is true. If X is not true, I desire to believe that X is not true.” Identity will only get in the way.

Do you want to constrain your actions? Yes! Ten thousand times yes! Akrasia exists. Commitment devices are useful. Beeminder is successful. Identity is one of the most effective tools for the job, if you wield it deliberately.

I’ve cultivated an identity as a person who makes events happen. It took months to instill, but now, when I think “I wish people were doing X,” I instinctively start putting together a group to do X. This manifests in minor ways, like the tree-climbing expedition I put together at the Effective Altruism Summit, and in big ways, like the megameetup we held in Boston. If I hadn’t used my identity to motivate myself, neither of those things would’ve happened, and my life would be poorer.

Identity is powerful. Powerful things are dangerous, like backhoes and bandsaws. People use them anyway, because sometimes they’re the best tools for the job, and because safety precautions can minimize the danger.

Identity is hard to change. Identity can be difficult to notice. Identity has unintended consequences. Use this tool only after careful deliberation. What would this identity do to your actions? What would it do to your beliefs? What social consequences would it have? Can you do the same thing with a less dangerous tool? Think twice, and then think again, before you add to your identity. Most identities are a hindrance.

But please, don’t discard this tool just because some things might go wrong. If you are willful, and careful, and wise, then you can cultivate the identity of the person you always wanted to be.