Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Paradox of Your Identity

From the day we’re born, we’re instructed on how to build an identity. We’re told our gender, race, socio economic class, religion, etc. Our identity is so important that without it some people may find it difficult to communicate with another until they can surmise it. At the same time, our identity is a
trap that limits and encages us.

How can this be, you may ask. We’re taught to be proud of our identity. In fact, it shapes how we speak, to whom we speak, the college and career we choose and the car we drive. However, in reality, we had no choice in the identity we claim to have created. To start, our name and first language were given to us. We had no choice. Those 2 factors play large roles in shaping who we are. In addition, we didn’t choose whether we’re attractive or unattractive. That status was given to us as well. And we never question why we speak English, for example, or have the name we were given and why another person is able to decide how attractive we are. The same goes for intelligence, humor, courage, etc.

All of the attributes our identity is comprised of were made up and defined before we were born. We are born into them and live our lives as though they are the facts of life. They are part of the human paradigm and no one asked for our opinion when they created the paradigm. They only told us what the rules were and how to fit in. Those rules shape our actions and thoughts throughout our lives.

Except, there is a catch to our identity. It comes with presuppositions that we never question. It is analogous to people believing the earth was flat years ago. The belief in a flat world was a fact and part of their identities and no one questioned it. When someone did, they were accused of being crazy or lacking common sense. With our identities, we only stray so far from the identity we were given by our environment for fear of falling out of favor with the people we know or don’t know. We color within the lines and remain politically correct. 

Therefore, the identity constrains us in ways that aren’t easily discernable because it could seem like a lack of common sense to question it. For example, we move about our lives with an identity that could predetermine that a person without a formal higher education could not be CEO of a large company. We presume other impossibilities about people based on age, race, gender, etc. Yet, there are people like Steve Jobs and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. who became extraordinarily successful without a formal higher education.

It is kind of like our identities are prepackaged with a script. We follow it faithfully. When we witness the success of people like Jobs and Rockefeller, we try to explain it with statements like luck or right place at the right time. Somehow they broke away from the script, questioned reality and followed their own desires regardless of popular opinion. 

As for the rest of us, when we stick to the script that is part of our cultural beliefs, we become uncomfortable when someone persuades us to try something outside of our identity. When that happens, we defend our way of thinking and acting. In that case, the very identity that we’re taught to be proud of can sometimes close our minds to possibilities that are outside of our knowledge and experience. From where we stand, our way is the right way. To step out of our identities we need proof that the new way is valid. Without the proof, we tend to spend more time negating new ways of thinking and acting.

There is, however, an alternative way to manage our identities. When we can distinguish our identity and how it can constrain us, we have a chance to choose possibilities that are outside of the box we were put into. This is not only critical for individuals and teams. Identity is sometimes the reason corporations get blindsided by disruptive technology created outside their industry, which implies regardless of your profession, status or native country, identity has built in blind spots. 

If you enjoy breaking new ground, find ways to constantly develop yourself. Furthermore, surround yourself with people who question your beliefs or limitations. And be willing to make mistakes. While stepping out of your identity presents social risks, it has tremendous rewards for personal and professional achievement.

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know. 


  1. Reasons I have seen include:

    They are concerned that they have identified a symptom, but not the real problem.

    The phone rings and one more crisis arrives preempting strategic value added activities.

    Bearers of ill tidings do not fare well in their organization. They want someone else to address the 800 # gorilla or dead rat. So, get a consultant.

    Politically, they are afraid to check out the issue, in case they are not correctly identifying the issue and they make an enemy.

    1. First, thanks for reading my blog, Gary. Your comments have validity. At the same time, there is a bigger issue. Second, those are all external issues. What I am talking about is the very source that causes you to respond the way you have described. People have a mental model first. That mindset dictates how they respond to the situations you have named. Those situations only serve to show the kind of identity your environment shaped you to be. That happened before you were an adult.