Is Identifying As Something Helpful or Harmful?

Is Identifying As Something Helpful or Harmful?

I’ve been thinking about identity and its relationship with behavior after reading Creative Calling, by Chase Jarvis, and Indistractable, by Nir Eyal. To make their arguments, both authors use the power of identifying with something to inspire their readers. “If you’re willing to say that you are a creator, prepare to enter a world of possibility,” Chase writes, arguing that identifying as creative is critical to living a richer life. In Indistractable, Nir says that we can increase our ability to focus through “identity pacts;” by identifying as indistractable and assuming the self image as someone who does not easily get distracted, we can – to paraphrase the book’s subtitle – “control our attention and choose our life.”

There are benefits of having a strong identity. In a world with limitless possibilities, identifying as something makes decision making easier. Borrowing from the author’s above, an example is: I am creative, so I write; I am indistractable, so I put my phone in another room while writing. Having these identities produces helpful action.

Identity becomes dangerous when it takes you away from the truth. For example, it’s hard for me to listen to my grandparents telling me to run less because I identify as a runner. In Keep Your Identity Small, author and Y Cominbator co-founder Paul Graham writes, 

“…people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan…If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible…The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”

He’s right and wrong. Identities influence behavior and if you have growth oriented identities such as optimist, learner, curious and nice person – they are helpful. Identity also creates community – i.e. you are a reader, so you join a book club. And community/belonging is a basic human need. However, Graham’s correct that it’s challenging to have a discussion about something that includes our identity. For example, someone who identifies as a smoker may ignore the science between smoking and cancer risk and instead point to articles like these as evidence they will be ok. They respond emotionally rather than rationally. This is dangerous and can happen anywhere (i.e. you identify as nice, so you don’t stick up for yourself in your relationship and instead point to the fact that your husband bought you a gift last week as evidence your marriage is ok.) In every discipline what we are after is the truth, and identifying as something can cloud our understanding.

Legendary investor Charlie Munger said, “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” This is a great practice but challenging cognitively and emotionally. The answer is to have “strong identities weakly held.” This allows us to be open to new information while still giving us identity’s benefits of positive action and community. Or, to quote Shane Parrish, founder of Farnam Street, we can develop the identity of someone who is “never 100% sure,” making it easier to change our minds with new information.

What do you think? What identities do you have that are helpful in driving positive behavior? What strategies have you used to fight the urge to only understand your position and instead to remain open and curious about the merits of the opposing side?