On Identity: Being and Becoming
I am panting. I've been running for the last four hours — I'm drenched in sweat which makes the battering gusts feel like needles on my face, and I know I can't stomach another energy gel. Every few minutes, I mentally calculate how much water I'm left with. Despite this, I soak in the jade-green mountains in the distance, with the slothful river crisscrossing its way through the forest. Fronds of trees wave gently in the distance. I'm happy.
But I wasn't always this crazy thrill-seeker who ran for hours on end. As a kid, I was the exact opposite. I hated all sports especially running, public speaking, making new friends... basically, I was a shy bookworm. I still have memories from the PE class where we were forced to run half a mile etched in my mind and how I detested every second of it. Back then, I spent all of my time reading books, watching cartoons, and playing video games.
Identity as Becoming
As an adult, I still enjoy reading books and occasionally watching cartoons, but I also love the very activities I hated as a kid. I love to run and often participate in grueling ultra-marathons, I love bouldering and being outdoors, and I am extremely extroverted who actively seeks out new people. Some of these changes happened naturally as I left the small town I grew up in (I was forced to improve my social skills and make new friends). Some happened after conscious deliberation (I got a coach who helped me get better at running). Still, the process for each change was the same: a period of cognitive dissonance and discomfort followed by a change in my conception of Self. I’ve recently been enamored with this idea of our identity as becoming — we're in a never-ending state of becoming something else, constantly changing into the next version of ourselves.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man. — Heraclitus
I love re-reading books I read a long time ago and re-watching old movies. Each time is the same; each time is different. I didn't think much of The Old Man and The Sea when I first read it in high school, but reading it after spinning down my startup made me break-down into tears.
With every new experience, every new book, every interaction, we change ever so slightly so that the next experience, we experience as a different person. I think this perpetual state becoming is an interesting way to think about Identity, about who you are. How do we talk about who we are if we are always in the process of constantly becoming something else? And how does our concept of Self change when we take on new behaviors?
Peter Weinreich defines identity as “the totality of one's self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future." In other words, your identity is the current snapshot of who you are in this moment, and who you aspire to be. Asking "who am I?" then must also include the question "who am I becoming?"
What happens when we think of our Identity as static? One of the direct implications of this mindset is that you'll become rigid in your ways of thinking and experiencing the world over time.
Disregarding the parts of your identity in flux also means that your idea of Self and your real-self will diverge over time. As you unintentionally change over time, this growing divergence might make you more susceptible to disruptions in your Identity. Drug dependence exemplifies this phenomenon: the addict's parents might see addiction transform their child into a shadow of his former self, but to the addict, he might still have the same conception of Self.
Thinking of your identity as fixed, static, coherent snapshots forces you to ignore parts of you that are in flux, and by tomorrow or next week, or next year, will be different. Does continuing to be the same person involve becoming radically different?
The core insight is that, in contrast to a view that Identity is really about static persistence or similarity, the self is organic and dynamic. Being the same person over time is not about trying to hold on to every aspect of our current selves; instead, it is about changing deliberately.
As Michel Foucault writes in "On the Genealogy of Ethics": "We have to create ourselves as a work of art.”
Identity as a strategy for attaining goals
I didn't have a strong identity during my teens: when asked to introduce myself in social situations — I could never find the right adjectives to describe myself. Looking back, this fluidity later allowed me to experiment with new identities without any judgments about how they will fit into my conception of Self.
In Keep your identity small ↗, Paul Graham argues against associating yourself with labels (i.e., "feminist", "Christian", "engineer", etc.) because labels constrain what you'll let yourself believe. The essay talks about the perils of having multiple labels as part of your Identity. In particular, we are prone to becoming distressed by any perceived threat to our identity and become utterly stiff around shifting, changing, or discarding labels that don't serve us anymore. In conclusion, Graham says, "The more labels you have on yourself, the dumber they make you." I generally agree with this, but the other side to this is that these very labels also help you function in society. If you have no labels whatsoever, it's challenging to figure out how to operate on a day-to-day basis. However, it’s important to recognize that labels don't exist unto themselves and are instead subconsciously or consciously chosen strategies to accomplish a specific outcome.
Take, for example, someone who prides themselves on their identity as a software engineer. This identity is precious because there's an implicit statement along the lines of: "I am a software engineer ( which means I will have a job, friends, family, status, wealth, etc.)." The implicit statement is the goal to be accomplished, and the label or the identity is a strategy towards achieving it. The value of this identity is derived from the goal it implicitly supports. Most people, however, don't explicitly add labels to their identity by consciously articulating these goals. A caveat being "Fake it till you make it," where the person knowingly adopts a label to accomplish an underlying goal.
Given that labels are a means of attaining implicitly defined goals, any threat to the identity is a threat to the goal. Of course, the degree of threat depends on the gravity of the goal attached to the identity. Suppose the person in the example above believes that they can only attain status, wealth, etc., through software engineering. In that case, they will get upset when someone challenges that identity and calls them a terrible engineer. This is because, over time, their internal narrative of achieving a “good life” is firmly wrapped up with the identity of being a software engineer.
However, now consider that this person also happens to be an author of a New York Times bestseller and has already amassed a considerable fortune, status, etc. I think they'll now be less bothered by another person labeling them a terrible software engineer because their goal of amassing wealth and status doesn't solely depend on this label.
This brings me to my next point: if threats to identity are really just threats to your goals, apart from reflecting on the reason for adopting a label, you should also ensure there's security around attaining those goals (probably via another identity). This is beneficial in two ways — you might realize that those implicit goals have already been accomplished, in which case you can Keep Your Identity Small or realize there are better labels you can adopt to accomplish your goals.
But rarely are our actions so pre-meditated... In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche describes the phenomenon of becoming as: “Becoming what you are presupposes that you do not have the slightest idea what you are... the organizing, governing "idea" keeping growing deep inside... before giving any clue as to the domineering task, the goal, the purpose, the meaning”. So, despite Identity being a strategy for accomplishing implicit goals, as Nietzsche notes, one's purpose is often hidden. Often we do not have the slightest idea of what we are — until we become it.
It is impossible to prevent yourself from actively controlling who you are becoming, and your experience, but I've been the happiest when I've taken myself less seriously and experienced things with the spirit of — "guess we'll find out". Approaching life this way has allowed me to continuously explore and take on experimental identities without questioning how everything makes up a coherent whole. Identity in the 21st century hyper-online world is tricky, and we spend hours consciously curating it, thinking that the right identity will bring us happiness and status, but ultimately, it's a wild goose chase.
I understand that many of our decisions are irrational and depend on many factors beyond our control. All we have to do is reject the illusion of static identity, keep ourselves open to the new experiences of life, and we might just discover who we are.
Thanks to Anna Gat ↗ for reading drafts of this essay.