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?