Where does your identity come from?

by Jack on February 2010

Paul Graham wrote a wise essay on why some debates turn into a “religious argument” (at least metaphorically speaking) while others stay civil. In the title of the essay he gives the fundamental advice advice: “Keep your identity small”. That is, hold within your identity only those things that are really essential. His basic point is simple and profound: debates that center on things that are closer to what people view as their identity have a greater tendency to turn ugly because there’s a greater likelihood of the debaters taking things personally.

Graham identifies a few examples of things that probably shouldn’t be made into a foundational part of your identity – religion, politics, the pickup truck you drive. He is somewhat more vague about things that should be part of your identity. He gets close to the target when he suggests that being a scientist [1] is a good candidate, because the only requirement for this is to be a seeker of truth. At first I thought that this could be the answer – drop everything else, and just be a “seeker of truth”, no more and no less.

But this goal has its own potential pitfalls. It is possible to become attached to the label “seeker of truth” and to view oneself as special and separate. Certainly, as an elite, enlightened “seeker of truth”, you are much better than those other sad souls who treat illusion as reality. Right? False – the ego can creep in anywhere and create separateness. When you cling to anything, even if it’s your supposed enlightenment and non-attachment, you are becoming attached again. How’s that for a paradox?

Still, as worldly identities go, “seeker of truth” is not a terribly bad one, especially when faced with the most common alternatives. Just be aware that the identity that the world applies to you is not your real identity. Where, then, does real identity come from?

“So what do you do?”

Is your behavior your identity? In contemporary society, the way we behave would suggest that that is the case. Many people believe that the specific behavior that someone practices to earn money is a great way to figure out “who” they are. Obviously we all “do” a lot more than what we are paid to do – eat, eliminate, sleep, exercise, connect with friends, participate in clubs and community activities, and so on. Nevertheless, the simple question, “what do you do?”, which could be interpreted in hundreds of different ways depending on context, is almost always understood colloquially to mean “what specific kind of work do you perform for several hours a day in order to earn money?”.

This is a somewhat arbitrary choice of question to get to know someone. Equally relevant questions might include:

  • what is the most important thing in the world to you?
  • what are your spiritual beliefs?
  • if you never had to work for money again, what would you do?
  • if you had nothing to prove to anyone else in the world, what would you do?

These are obviously a lot more “personal” and may also be less socially acceptable, depending on the context. They are probably at least as good as the “so what do you do?” question in terms of getting to the heart of someone’s identity in the world and in society. Nevertheless, they all seem to fall short in some way or another.

Does identity stem from what someone does, what they value, what they believe, or something else?

The world will give you a label, if you let it

The behavior theory actually does have a lot of practical use, at least in the physical world. The identity that is most apparent to other people, and communicated to them on a minute by minute basis, is how they see you behave. There’s much value in using the behavior theory for self-analysis as well. It’s harder to fool yourself if you examine honestly where you dedicate all of your resources – money, emotional and physical energy, time, attention, and so on.

For example, if you move to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, work as a waiter, and write four pages in a year, then you are behaving as a waiter who took a few notes, not an aspiring screenwriter. This applies no matter how many parties you attend and brag about being a writer, and how strongly you “believe in your dream”. Sorry. The good part is that this is completely changeable. Your habitual behavior is not really your identity, just a label that the world places on you – you can change your behavior in an instant if you want [2]. If you decide that you really want to pursue your calling as a screenwriter and choose to sign up for classes, join meetup groups and write two thousand words a day on your first screenplay, then the world around you will probably start to think of “aspiring screenwriter” as your identity. (Also, as a positive side effect, your behavior will be much more aligned with your beliefs, and you will be much more likely to feel happy regularly.)

You don’t have to submit to the label from the world, but it’s not a bad idea to consider the meaning of that label, even if you reject it completely. The world around you acts as if your behavior is your identity and will call you on your bullshit every time. “I’m a aspiring screenwriter” rings kind of hollow for someone who behaves only as a waiter. It resonates strongly for someone who works as a waiter to earn money, takes classes in writing, writes in all their spare time, and networks incessantly with other aspiring and established screenwriters.

Your behavior defines you very strongly to the world around you, so if you want a new identity, it’s a good idea to start changing it by changing your behavior. Just don’t make that behavior part of your identity. 🙂

[1] This is to say, a practitioner of the scientific method, not specifically a professional scientist.
[2] The habits that generate that behavior may take a bit longer to release, but you can certainly do that as well.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby February 11, 2010 at 13:25

Interesting post!! I got a chuckle the other day when I checked my Twitter page and noticed that while I blog and tweet primarily about yoga, I’m “listed” as a librarian in everyone’s lists save one, which is called “People I Actually Know.” Other than that, it’s various permutations of “librarians”, “libraries”, or “boston libraries”. So it’s in keeping with what you were talking about with what people do. My library job is definitely the job that pays the bills, but the job that feeds my heart and soul is teaching yoga. So how does that shape my identity? I’m not sure … except that right now, I am unreasonably attached to teaching yoga.

On a lighter note, “seeker of truth” totally made me LOL as I thought of the TV show “Legend of the Seeker” wherein young hero finds out he’s “The Seeker” and must wield the “Sword of Truth” to save his homeland. Cheesy-awesome and made of WIN.


Jack February 11, 2010 at 14:28

That makes sense. I think that for you, the label “librarian” is (1) correct, insofar as a one word label applied to a person can be, and (2) incomplete. The world around us likes simplicity, and yoga teacher / librarian verges on complex (TWO jobs that you like to do? Huh?!). I wonder if liking teaching yoga and looking forward to it is the same thing as attachment. Must pursue this further.

I’m not familiar with that show, but it sounds intriguing. “Seeker of truth” really does sound pompous, actually, even if it’s not a bad thing to identify with. Perhaps I’ll use that as my answer the next time I get the “so what do you do?” question and observe the reaction ;).


Swag meister March 28, 2013 at 11:47

We should have a re writing of the dictionary to make this less confusing.


roznoszenie ulotek March 1, 2016 at 05:02

great article


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