What follows is a mental exercise I go through whenever I'm thinking about who I am. It's not a rigorous psychological or philosophical treatise, or a theory based on deductive reasoning. It's something that I do to make sure I'm not saddled with excess mental baggage, to keep myself objective in arguments, and to keep my mind open and adaptable to the world as it changes.
Two Rules for Identity
I have two rules for accepting anything as part of my identity
- Can I manifest it physically in the world? I run, therefore I am a runner. I paint, therefore I am a painter.
- Is it additive? By accepting it as who I am, does it prevent me or exclude me from adding something else to my identity? For example, being an atheist excludes me from believing in the existence of any higher power. That's exclusionary, so even if I don't believe in the existence of a higher power right now I'm not going to let "atheist" be a part of my identity.
Can I Manifest it in the Real World
I am a runner. You know this because there is evidence in the world that I run. I have won a race or two, I have collected a few belt buckles. People can see me run and say to themselves "Look, a runner".
I am also a drummer. There is evidence in the world that I play the drums. I can sit down at a drum set and say, “Observe, as I play the drums”. I didn’t put an adjective in front of the word. I didn’t say I was a good, bad, skilled or unskilled drummer. The quality of my running or drumming is for each individual to judge and for me to improve or let stagnate (for the record, I'm a bad runner and a good drummer). The fact that I do the activity of drumming makes me a drummer whether you like it or not. I am willing to accept being a drummer or a runner is part of my identity, because I can prove it by physical action or artifact.
Sculptors, painters, and artists of all kinds can claim to be these things because there is evidence in the world to suggest it. We can watch them do the activity “sculpting” or “painting”, or look at the paintings, sculptures, or other artifacts they have produced. Even software developers, who don't necessarily create real physical artifacts in the world, can point to their code, or their applications and say "I am a software developer". To produce is to be.
These kinds identities are real. They are useful. They are objective. They cannot be faked, and they don’t require “group” or "belief" words. They require no adjectives. “I am a Marxist drummer” or “I am a Pagan runner” would be strange things to say. You might think you are a Marxist and a be a drummer, but using the adjective “Marxist” to modify the kind of drummer you doesn’t change your physical expression of your identity. It doesn’t matter what kind of drummer you believe yourself to be, your identity is that of a drummer. Nobody can see the Marxist part. You might be a fast drummer, or a smooth drummer, or even a bad drummer, but those adjectives aren't a part of your identity.
Prepackaged Group and belief identity doesn’t work this way. I’m not a Christian, but I don’t think that simply saying, “I am a Christian” makes you one anymore than claiming “I am a drummer” makes you one. The difference is that doing the things that a Christian does, such as going to church, being baptized, and taking communion doesn’t make you one either. Being a Christian requires adherence to a belief system. You can’t do Christianity any more than you can do Marxism or liberalness, or fascism.
Group and belief identity systems are lazy in this way. I can say any old thing is my identity. I am an anarchist. See, that was easy to do, but it doesn’t do anything, and until it does I wouldn't consider it a part of my identity. Does it suggest how I might think about things? Perhaps, but who cares? Thinking is not action. Action is action. You can change the way you think any time you want to. Creating an identity around ways of thinking seems like a dangerous thing to do.
So, your identity is limited to what you can do in the world. Your belief system may lead you to do things in the world, but it's not who you are. Paul Graham suggests keeping your identity small. An easy way to limit the size of your identity is to limit it to the things you can actually do in life.
You're probably thinking what about husbands and fathers and mothers and sons and brothers. Those are all identities you can have that you can't manifest in the real world. I say no, not really. You may say you're a father, but until you prove it to yourself through conscious action, its just something you say.
As Paul Graham says, being a scientist may be an exception, but science done right is empty of all identity. As Graham says
"Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Besides, you can manifest the results of science in the real world, though many would call that being an engineer.
Is This Identity Additive or Subtractive
Danger identities are anything that ends in an "ist", and danger belief systems are any that end in "ism". None of them are real. They are patterns of mind that many accept, thinking patterns that more closely resemble that worn out grooves that carriages have tread for thousands of years, even though cars have long since existed.
So whenever I feel myself on the verge of saying "I'm a such and such", I stop and ask, "Wait, is that something that I can actually do in the world, or just a way of closing off future decision?" If I can manifest it in the real world, then I'm a such and such. If I can't, it's out. So beyond my basic "isness" as a human being, which is the ultimate additive identity, I try to keep things simple and don't adopt anything that ends in an "ism" that might make me an "ist".
Become a Bespoke Human
Don't let the identities that you select tell people a story about who you are, or let them generalize about you. Don't let these bundles of viewpoints, behaviors, and thought lenses come along in as a bundle, but one by one, with proof and conviction, and let them drive action. If they don’t drive action, they are empty opinions, likely not worth having.
Think of your own identity as DNA. Your DNA is unique to you, even if it has patterns that resemble others. You don't have identical DNA to anyone (unless you have an identical twin sibling). In the same way, you don't have to have identical markers. When you adopt an identity whole sale, it comes along with all of the markers, some of which on close inspection you might not agree with. Instead, build up who you are from individual thoughts and opinions. It takes longer to do, but in this way you can live on your own terms, as who you are. You can genuinely respond to the question "Who are you?" with the answer "I am me”.
Identities Make You Predictable
Prepackaged identities project to the world how you should be interacted with, and what they can expect from you. They tell the world that you will think in a particular way. Worse, they fool you into thinking that you have to think and behave in a certain way. Prepackaged identities make you predictable. Those who have adopted the same prepackaged identity feel safe because they assume you are the same as them, and those who have the opposite prepackaged identity feel anxiety about interacting with you because they assume you are not the same as them, and they don't know how to act or what to say.
Its like walking into a restaurant that you've never heard of. Its exciting, strange, and interesting. You'll have to peruse the menu and ask questions to understand the place and what it offers. With a prepackaged identity you become McDonalds. Almost everyone has been to a McDonalds and has a preconceived notion of what they are going to get when they visit one. So they don't think when they get there, they don't ask questions and they make a lot of assumptions. Then they order a Big Mac because its whats always there (instead of the McRib which only occasionally comes around). Don't become McDonalds with your identity. Be the local restaurant that changes its menu often and seeks to deliver the best.
Identities Can Be Isolating
Much has been said about group identity helping others to find a tribe to belong to. What is not said is how often a group identity isolates you from the myriad other groups you could interact with, but the prepackaged rules of a group identity prohibit. In large scale populations, identity associations drive more division than cohesion.
Prepackaged Identities Are Cheap
Viewpoints that you are serious about require deep introspection and investigation. They require you to ask yourself if you agree with them and why. Its impossible to have a great many viewpoints in life that you yourself should take seriously; the time constraint in developing them is just too high.
This is what makes well-researched viewpoints so valuable. People who hold them can be taken seriously because they persuade you to their viewpoint through logical discourse, allowing you to come to their viewpoint by asking the same questions, hearing your deep introspection, and having their own viewpoint challenged through questions from others.
Its easy to spot people whose viewpoints come as a result of adopting a prepackaged identity. Their perspective rarely survives basic questioning, and conviction to the group or team is higher than the viewpoint itself.
People who adopt a group identity have a lot of weakly held opinions that simply came along for the ride. They may not even realize it until questioned on a specific viewpoint, and may appeal to the group. They are hard to take seriously because they have not grappled with the specifics.
Better to say "I'm too young to have a viewpoint here" than "I believe in this viewpoint because I'm a such and such".
Physical Traits Vs Identity
Some things are unavoidable. I am a person who wears a size 12 shoe. My feet are as they are and changing them is not possible. I might like to say "I am a person who wears a size 7 shoe!" but I would be lying to myself and everyone around me, and the consequences would be even more black toenails than I already have in my size 12 shoes. Also, almost anyone looking at my feet would know that I couldn't possibly wear a size 7 and would not believe me. This failure to be honest about something so basic in my makeup would also hurt my credibility when I also claimed to be a runner. If I can't be honest about my shoe size, how likely is someone to believe that I'm a runner just because I claim to be. These kind of things you have to accept and work to make productive.
But even these things are not your identity, they are merely traits that inform your identity. I am a tall person is not an identity statement. Being tall or short is a physical aspect that many share, and left-handed clubs may exist, but they are collections of physical traits to use to create your identity, or to overcome to create your identity. Don't confuse your physicality for your identity.
In the End, Don’t Focus so Much on Your Identity
The more you ask yourself “What or Who am I?” the more likely you are to look for words to describe yourself. Don’t bother. Call yourself by your name, then go and do things in the world. You will be know yourself for what you’ve done out there, than what you think in here.
Keep Your Identity Small - Paul Graham: “Keep Your Identity Small.” Accessed March 24, 2021. http://paulgraham.com/identity.html.