Successive Approximations

The Power and Danger of Identities

The Power and Danger of Identities

Part 1

I was talking to a friend recently, and discussing the fact that he's managed to stick with one hobby (learning Japanese) while having another hobby that used to consume much of his time go untouched for years (recording music).

What I realized as we talked, and what I said to him, was that we don't really do things because we want to, or because we have goals. We do things because we want to be consistent with the identity that have of ourselves and we put out into the world.

In his case, he'd mostly given up the identity of being a musician to his friends and family who previously would listen to his recordings. But to the people in his Japanese class, he hadn't given up the identity of him being a student of the language.

Each of us is an overlapping tapestry of identities: one to family, one to your spouse, one to you coworkers, one to your shooting buddies, one to your Facebook friends. And virtually everything we do is motivated by trying to live up to the identity that we aspire to or want to maintain.

You eat right and exercise to maintain your identity as someone taking care of your body. You show up on time to work to maintain your identity with your coworkers as being reliable and hardworking. You put the dishes in the dishwasher to maintain your identity with your spouse that you listen when they ask you to do things. You grind away in practice even though nobody will see you do it, because you hope the results will show up in the results when the match day comes.

Part 2

For a while now, one source of cognitive dissonance for me has been this feeling of inconsistency with one of my identities: that of being a podcaster. I just wrote up the history of my shooting podcast over on my shooting blog, but the short version is that in 2018 I recorded 44 consecutive episodes in a year, and felt I had proved that I could do it if I set my mind to it. Once I'd proved that, I lost the fire and motivation to record, and have done it only sporadically since then.

But I never let go of the identity to my few-hundred-odd subscribers that I Was A Podcaster. It was part of my image, and one that I fell short of every day I didn't record a podcast. I wasn't conscious of it at the time, but as I start to lay that burden down and let go of it, only by its absence do I sense its weight.

It's fun to announce the beginning of a new identity: starting a family, starting a new job, starting a business, starting a podcast. Deciding when to announce the end of an identity is harder. Often there's no clear-cut reason not to put it off one more day.

But you can only be so many things. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, the things you say no to are actually more important than the things you say yes to. If you have too many scattered identities, you fail at all of them in rotation. You feel paralyzed and unable to act. You have no clear priority system to organize your day (work, exercise, eat, write, read, sleep). Instead your subconscious decision-making algorithm reaches a deadlock, so you do nothing and instead scroll on social media or watch autoplay video after autoplay video on Youtube.

If you find yourself in this position, examine your identities. Figure out which ones are in conflict, or which ones you most fear giving up. Typically they are the ones that are the most tenuous and which you feel the need to maintain psychologically because you do not actually embody them regularly.

You will dread giving them up, feeling like you've declared failure. If you can, review your history, as I did with the shooting podcast, and find the narrative that shows you actually did what you set out to, but now it's time to move on. Once you come to grips with letting the identity go and tell one person, you'll start to feel better. That's the sign you're on the right track. Keep telling people until everyone knows. By the time you do that, you'll be wondering why didn't do it sooner.

Ben Berry

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