Strategic choice of identity

Iden­tity is mostly dis­cussed on LW in a cau­tion­ary man­ner: keep your iden­tity small, be aware of the iden­tities you are at­tached to. As ben­lan­dau­tay­lor points out, iden­tities are very pow­er­ful, and while be­ing right­fully cau­tious about them, we can also cul­ti­vate them de­liber­ately to help us achieve our goals.

Some helpful iden­tities that I have that seem gen­er­ally ap­pli­ca­ble:

  • growth mindset

  • low-hang­ing fruit picker

  • truth-seeker

  • jack-of-all trades (some­one who is good at a va­ri­ety of skills)

  • some­one who tries new things

  • uni­ver­sal curiosity

  • mir­ror (some­one who learns other peo­ple’s skills)

Out of the above, the most use­ful is prob­a­bly growth mind­set, since it’s effec­tively a meta-iden­tity that al­lows the other parts of my iden­tity to be fluid. The low-hang­ing fruit iden­tity helps me be on the look­out for easy op­ti­miza­tions. The uni­ver­sal cu­ri­os­ity iden­tity mo­ti­vates me to try to un­der­stand var­i­ous sys­tems and fields of knowl­edge, be­sides the do­mains I’m already fa­mil­iar with. It helps to give these playful or cre­ative names, for ex­am­ple, “cham­pion of low-hang­ing fruit”. Some of these work well to­gether, for ex­am­ple the “try­ing new things” iden­tity con­tributes to the “jack of all trades” iden­tity.

It’s also im­por­tant to iden­tify un­helpful iden­tities that get in your way. Nega­tive iden­tities can be vague like “lazy per­son” or spe­cific like “some­one who can’t finish a pro­ject”. With iden­tities, just like with habits, the eas­iest way to re­duce or elimi­nate a bad one seems to be to in­stall a new one that is in­com­pat­i­ble with it. For ex­am­ple, if you have a “shy per­son” iden­tity, then go­ing to par­ties or start­ing con­ver­sa­tions with strangers can gen­er­ate coun­terex­am­ples for that iden­tity, and help to dis­place it with a new one of “so­cia­ble per­son”. Costly sig­nal­ing can be used to achieve this—for ex­am­ple, join­ing a pub­lic speak­ing club. The old iden­tity will not nec­es­sar­ily go away en­tirely, but the com­pet­ing iden­tity will cre­ate cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, which it can be use­ful to de­liber­ately fo­cus on. More spe­cific iden­tities re­quire more spe­cific coun­terex­am­ples. Since the origi­nal nega­tive iden­tity makes it difficult to perform the ac­tions that gen­er­ate coun­terex­am­ples, there needs to be some form of suc­cess spiral that starts with small steps.

Some ex­am­ples of un­helpful iden­tities I’ve had in the past were “per­son who doesn’t waste things” and “per­son with poor in­tu­ition”. The aver­sion to wast­ing money and ma­te­rial things pre­dictably led to wast­ing time and at­ten­tion in­stead. I found it use­ful to try “think­ing like a trader” to coun­ter­act this “stingy per­son” iden­tity, and get com­fortable with the idea of trad­ing money for time. Now I no longer ob­sess about re­cy­cling or buy the cheap­est ver­sion of ev­ery­thing. Un­der­con­fi­dence in my in­tu­ition was likely re­spon­si­ble for my ten­dency to miss the for­est for the trees when study­ing math or statis­tics, where I fo­cused on de­tails and missed the big pic­ture ideas that are es­sen­tial to ac­tual un­der­stand­ing. My main ob­jec­tion to in­tu­itions was that they feel im­pre­cise, and I am try­ing to de­velop an iden­tity of an “in­tu­ition wiz­ard” who can ma­nipu­late con­cepts from a dis­tance with­out zoom­ing in. That is a cooler name than “some­one who thinks about things with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing them”, and brings to mind some peo­ple I know who have amaz­ing in­tu­ition for math, which should help the iden­tity stick.

There can also be am­bigu­ously use­ful iden­tities, for ex­am­ple I have a “tough per­son” iden­tity, which mo­ti­vates me to challenge my­self and ex­pand my com­fort zone, but also in­creases self-crit­i­cism and self-ne­glect. Given the mixed effects, I’m not yet sure what to do about this one—maybe I can come up with an iden­tity that only has the pos­i­tive effects.

Which iden­tities hold you back, and which ones pro­pel you for­ward? If you man­aged to diminish nega­tive iden­tities, how did you do it and how far did you get?