Shape Your Identity Or It Will Shape You

“Keep your identity small.” — Paul Graham

“Identity” has become somewhat of a dirty word, especially in Silicon Valley circles.  In many minds, the word “identity” goes hand in hand with the word “politics”; a divisive tool used by politicians to win voters by appealing to religious or ethnic affiliations.

YCombinator founder Paul Graham even wrote an essay about the importance of keeping your identity small.  Once your identity is threatened, he reasons, you become defensive and resistant to change or even dialogue. Thereby, non-collaborative and non-productive.

I agree that challenging someone’s identity can trigger defensiveness, but the answer isn’t to pretend that identity doesn’t exist.

Identity is a core and unavoidable part of all our lives.  Our actions shape our identity, and in turn, our identity shapes our actions.  Trying to pretend that identity doesn’t matter may make you feel better about yourself, but it won’t affect how others see you, and how their perceptions shape their actions.

The great irony is that many of those who, like Paul, advocate the suppression of individual identity aren’t shy in advocating the construction of strong corporate identities and brands.  Whether you’re an individual or a company, identity matters.

I believe that each of us should be thoughtful, proactive, and rigorous about our own identity.  Focusing on and answering a few key questions will allow you to shape your identity and thus your life to better meet the expectations you have of yourself.

You have an identity

As much as you might believe that your age, gender, or race is irrelevant, they affect how others perceive you.  In fact, they even affect how you perceive yourself.  In a famous set of experiments, subjects who were primed with different elements of their identity actually performed differently on tests.  Asian-American women who were primed with their ethnicity did better on math tests than the control group, and even better than those who were primed with their gender.  Doubtless these women considered the stereotype that men are better at math pernicious and false; that didn’t stop it from affecting them.

Silicon Valley is famous for its belief that it is a pure meritocracy, but I’ve noticed that most of the loudest advocates for this belief are young white men, and most of its other advocates are older white men.

We all have many aspects to our identities that even *we* don’t even realize we have.  Every action we take, no matter how seemingly trivial, can have meaning to others, which is why it’s critical to be thoughtful about shaping our identities.

Defining your identity

Your identity is your vector; it is a path defined by what you do and why you do it.  By indicating your direction, it helps you define your available options.   Like an old-fashioned newspaper reporter, your identity helps you sharpen your answers to the 6 Ws: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and hoW.

What: What you stand for in the world. You have to stand for distinct things, not platitudes.  One of the biggest reasons I’m an advocate for identity is because I believe in this “What”.  We are all moral agents, and we need to be thoughtful about what we stand for.  “Why am I a good person?” isn’t just a rhetorical question.

Who: Who you stand with.  Who’s in your network?  Whose networks do you belong to?  Part of the reason I wanted to respond to Paul’s essay is the fact that Paul is someone that I stand with.  Ironically enough, Paul is incredibly clear about whom he stands with; Paul is all about helping technologists and engineers have an impact on the world.

How: How you manifest your identity.  What are the key things you’re going to do?  One of the reasons I chose to write this essay is that I believe writing is one of the best ways to help thoughtful people evolve their views.  Writing makes it clear what I stand for in a very public and shareable way.

Where: Where you stand is also an integral part of your identity.  Geography matters.  If your identity includes becoming a successful software entrepreneur, you ought to be in Silicon Valley.  Strong entrepreneurs recognize that they’re much more likely to succeed in Silicon Valley than anywhere else.

Why: Why do you take a stand?  We are moral actors in this world, and we should be conscious about the reasons we take a stand.  If you treat this as an unconscious, unshapeable thing, that’s bad for the world.  The “Why” of your identity is something that binds all of your choices together, and frequently comes down to a statement of principle.  I believe in a number of key principles that I apply to myself and the world at large: A world of diminished violence, reaching human potential, getting to truth through intellectual discourse, and universal civil rights that apply to all people, all cultures, and all societies.

When: When do you act on your stance? When are you willing to take on risk, suffering, or pain?  Frequently, the answer is “When it’s really important,” which ties into the “Why” of your identity.

Coming up with these answers can be hard, even uncomfortable, but it is essential.  You can’t just go with the flow on everything.  Neither absolute flexibility nor inflexibility is a practical approach to life.  Even someone as notoriously insistent on getting his way as Steve Jobs reflects this principle.  Steve was inflexible on things like design and user experience, but he chose those things thoughtfully and with a purpose.  When you know the answers to these questions, you’re much better equipped to lead a life that reflects your beliefs and values.

The rise of Network Identity

One exciting development for constructing a thoughtful identity is the rise of what I call “Network Identity.”  There are key differences between a traditional group identity and the new network identity.  A traditional group has a set of members, and is the same for each member.  A network, on the other hand, is different for each individual.  Unlike a community, networks can overlap while still being different.

We like to say things like “You are what you eat,” to reflect the reality that your diet is one of the most critical inputs to your health.  In the same way, network identity states, “You are whom you choose to befriend.”  The sum of your network provides others with a valuable way of gauging your individual identity.  When I meet someone new, like many, I look them up on LinkedIn.  Looking at their position in the network, especially our set of mutual friends, is one of the strongest inputs into how I perceive them.

Just as with your personal identity, you build your network identity through the choices you make.  The good news is, for most of us, choosing whether or not you want to have a relationship with someone is easier than deciding what abstract principles to follow.  The bad news is, most of us don’t actively and explicitly terminate our friendships, so sometimes our roster of friends makes an unintended impression.  Even here, however, you need to be thoughtful; “my friend, right or wrong” is just as misguided as “my country, right or wrong.”

Defending your identity

Paul Graham’s approach of keeping your identity small may help keep conflicts from arising over your identity, but in fact this could actually be negative. Your identity helps you define key borders and boundaries (Where and When).  You have to choose what you’re going to advocate and defend (What and Why).  If you don’t enforce the integrity of your identity, you’ll lose it.  In other words, if you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.

Saying you’re a “good person” is meaningless unless you actually *act* on behalf of others.  If you thought the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, what did you personally do about it?  If you think the US shouldn’t support autocratic regimes, what are you doing about it?  Only Tweeting doesn’t really count.

This can be a fine line to walk; I think of it as the difference between being principled and self-righteous.  You should follow the principles behind your identity; you shouldn’t seek out conflict as an act of self-aggrandizement.

Choose your own identity

Identity comes from choice; choice comes from identity.  On a daily basis, the actions you take, the people you spend time with, and the principles you choose to defend will define your identity.  Therefore, you should choose to construct an identity that signals to the world your core values and unique choices.

P.S. It hardly seems fair for me to pontificate about personal identities without sharing how I view my own identity.  Not all of you will agree with the principles I follow, but understanding them will certainly help us have a productive dialogue.  Here are some of the ways that I characterize myself:

  • Progressive
  • Technocrat
  • American
  • Intellectual
  • Mystical
  • Meritocratic
  • Friend

(Thanks to Chris Yeh and Ben Casnocha for their help on this essay.)

Photo by Tim Marshall