We can and should choose our own story and our identity. Shaping the way we present our identity does not change our most authentic core. It builds upon our deepest strengths and leverages them for our own benefit and so that we can help others. For today’s reading, I suggest some interesting articles here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Identity as a presentation
I will use the 1:10:89 rule of thumb here. Maybe about 1% of who we are and 80% of what makes us special is deeply rooted in our core strengths, values and experiences. About 10% are unique to us, yet we can play with them. And probably everything else in us is boringly normal. The vast part of this whole article deals with 10% of our identity that makes us unique, and yet we can change.
Think about identical tweens. They are almost entirely equivalent, yet 1% of their qualities make them truly special. About 10% of their qualities makes them different from other people their age group, social background, and location. Everything else is normal and not truly worth mentioning. Like they probably have 2 hands and 2 eyes, which is extremely important, yet we would likely not mention it.
Seasons and resolutions
Each year, around the same time, we publish an article dealing with annual resolutions. The cycle repeats itself. Each year we try our best, rarely succeed but more often fail miserably, decide to change, and formulate an action plan. Sometimes we exercise this plan and sometimes we acknowledge our defeat. Changing habits is necessary, but also very hard. Quite often it is easier to change the presentation.
Recently I went to a concert of classical music and opera dedicated to seasons of the year. The twenty-something years old girl that selected the masterpieces was a real prodigy, very smart, virtuous pianist, with international acclaim. The selection of the pieces played was absolutely brilliant. Some pieces had the same names, based on works by the same poets, yet with the very different musical presentation. There were even two pieces with a musical representation of rain, only it was a very different mood and a very different rain in each piece. There were also two pieces called December, only one dealt with the cold and dark German winter, and the other with the brilliant renewal of Israeli desert under the winter rain.
True to the core
We all have some deep core values and qualities, which define who we are. Being perfectly normal is quite strange. There are so many qualities that a man can have… With a very high chance, we will be very good in some of these qualities and very bad in the others. If we are just a little bit lucky, the good qualities reinforce each other, generating some core strengths and excellence. In the same way, unless we are unimaginably lucky, we will have core weaknesses. Additional strengths and weaknesses build up as we choose our choices and live our lives. As new skills often build upon our earlier successes and failures, our core strengths and weaknesses are often reinforced.
It is usually a good idea to be true to who you truly are. There was a study showing that some extraversion is good for everybody, who is not an introvert in his core. The core qualities are deeply encoded in our brain and associated with the language we use. If you are unhappy with your core, you may immigrate and change your profession. The secret agents and con artists can have several identities with different core values, but we are not sure about the psychological and emotional price they have to pay. If you are not willing to pay the price of severe PTSD, better be true to your core.
Everything but your core is a subject of perspective. For example, suppose you are hyperactive. This means you will be less likely to focus and less prone to deep thoughts. At the same time, you will have much more energy than everybody else. If you focus on short tasks or interesting stuff, your productivity will be stellar. Quite possibly you will clash with authority and feel a rebel, yet you may have many friends and people you love.
Being unable to focus on boring things, you will probably acquire some knowledge in a great number of subjects that interest you. Now, you have a choice of how to present yourself. If you try to present yourself like something you are not, say, deep thinker, you will probably not enjoy this position. However, you may possibly decide to be a rebel or a pleaser with respect to your friends. You may decide to play your technical skills or your interpersonal abilities. Your childhood traumas may make you a great therapist or an inspiring teacher.
Even the basic experience of humanity is a subject to interpretation. What kind of ape are we? Our core quality is our huge brain. Anything beyond that is a subject of interpretation. I quote
What is unique about humans? We communicate linguistically… We can throw accurately and quickly over a long distance… Our creativity is without limits… Reciprocal altruism permeates our psychology on a daily basis… We form strong groups comprised of non-kin — all of whom work together in a coordinated fashion.
All of these different qualities are scientifically proven, and unique to people, and our big brains facilitate each and every one of these aspects.
So what should we do with this qualities? We can have a conversation with our friends, throw some darts or help others as a part of a larger community. Either way, we will be unique, only we will have a slightly different effect on the world around us and a different perspective about ourselves. As a bonus, you do not need to accept evolution to help others: practically every holy book suggests to do so.
Telling the right story
I have friends whose qualities are quite similar to mine. They are approximately as smart, have a similar technological expertise, played chess as children, tried to become entrepreneurs with mixed results. One of them told me that all of his choices were wrong, and if he could he would choose otherwise. Now, the guy is pretty much OK. He is not really different from the others. People love him. He had about the same ratio of success and failures as everybody else and does not have any reason to hate himself. He appears to be quite happy and I did not expect this sort of deeply negative story.
Everybody fails occasionally, yet to be more resilient we could focus not on our failure or choices, not even on our successes, but on the experiences themselves. When you tell your own story in your head, what does it sound like? My own story in my head is a comedy, something similar to “curb your enthusiasm”. For some of my friends, the story is more dramatically charged heroic quest. For some ladies I know it is a lifestyle show. Why does it matter? If your story is a survival type of reality show and you get eliminated, it is a horrible feeling. If it is a comedy and you happen to fail, you get yet another subject to joke about. While you perceive yourself as a hero, your choices will often be binary. At the same time, everybody else will see many more possibilities.
Is our tragedy real? Sickness, old age, and death are common to all people. If you happen to risk a lot, you will occasionally lose. Will you take the loss as a tragic ending? During the financial crisis periods, people dealing with money often commit suicide. One of the things we associate with 1929 are the businessmen jumping from a tall building. Yet simple workers lost even more, and survived, winning the great war and creating the unparallel period of prosperity. What is the meaning of your identity? Living in Israel, we celebrate several holidays. Each holiday has the same basic structure. “We suffered. They wanted to kill us. We survived. Now, let us eat.”. We all are survivors and children of survivors one way or the other, and this part of identity we will pass to our children.
Identity as a job title
In feudal society, a large part of the identity would be hereditary. It could be an aristocratic title, a land to farm or a place in a merchant guild. A person’s identity would be defined first of all by the title. At the feudal times, people did not change their jobs very often, and the same title would serve them for their entire lives.
We live in the 21st century, and being defined by our job is dangerous. The chances of getting a promotion or falling from a CEO position to an entry-level job are quite high. The salary will fluctuate accordingly. Some of the money will be invested in solid endeavors that will fail, possibly due to bad management. Other money will play in speculative markets with ever-changing results. It is OK to work hard and love your job, as long as your personal success is not defined by your success in the job that you do. I quote:
Since “work” is “who I am,” American attitude towards money is complex. Americans esteem people who rose from relatively ordinary beginnings to achieve great wealth through hard work… However people do not value people with money just because they have money. People who have great wealth through inheritance are not admired. People who are wealthy because they put their money into a passive instrument like an ETF tracks the S&P500 are not admired. People who achieve great wealth by winning the lottery are not admired.
Identity through belonging to a team
The Japanese culture does not put the identity in personal achievement, as much as it values belonging to the winning team and helping the team to succeed. Many small businesses and elite military groups have this sort of a culture, which is almost like a family. People are proud of becoming a part of the team and will do a great deal for the team. In some extreme situations, people will give up their wealth, social position and life for the success of their team. This is a great source of pride and joy as long as the team is winning. What happens when the team starts to lose? What happens when some players or managers get dishonest?
In Israel, we had a social experiment called Kibuts. In these agricultural settlements, everything was shared by all members. As long as the settlement were poor and the settlers were proud, the belonging was the greatest joy. As the settlers got richer or the settlements themselves got huge amounts of money, everything changed. Belonging to the settlement was no longer the dominant part of the identity, and the younger settlers often left to live their lives in the cities. The experiment is not over yet, as both the settlements and the settlers find new ways to redefine themselves.
Changing life through identity
Every coach understands how our beliefs form our identity, and how we can change our lives by changing our beliefs. Reframing is a powerful technique for dealing with various experiences using new and creative perspectives. Through beliefs, we can change what we think, what other people think and what motivates us as greed and fear. Coaches earn their money by working with specific situations and specific beliefs.
When we change our identity, we acquire a whole new set of beliefs associated with the behavior. Some beliefs are useful, others might be dangerous. People are complex beings, and it makes sense to have an equally complex identity. We are who we are. Parents and children, individuals and team members, successful and vulnerable, with unique experiences and yet usually very ordinary lives. Our identity is not fixed, and it is in our power to change it, to tell a different story, and see where it takes us.