Keep your identity small

Last updated May 25, 2023

(I wrote this essay in response to the prompt: what is something that you changed your mind about recently?)

I used to believe in the importance of having a strong identity (i.e. a definite answer to Who You Are and What You Do), in order to differentiate yourself from others. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out my own answers to those questions. When covid hit, I lost touch with most of my acquaintances, and I realized that the constant presence of people you don’t know very well forces you to condense the rich identity in your head into sound bites for the convenience of others. Introduce yourself enough times using bad first-order approximations, and you start to believe them. In the absence of acquaintances, I was able to stop labeling myself. Projecting a strong identity in social situations ties your status to your labels, and therefore locks you into your mistakes. Decoupling identity from activities (“I’m a climber” vs “I like rock climbing") is slightly better because it enables you to critically evaluate whether the activities are enjoyable and healthy, without questioning your self-worth or losing social points. However, the really powerful technique is not thinking too much about who you are. If you have no labels, you’re totally free from both internal and external pressures to conform to some artificial description. In that sense, the most efficient way to live is to consciously keep your identity small.