We often talk about wanting to be anti-fragile - the ability to not just stay resilient through chaos, but thrive as a result of it.
But how does one get there?
I believe that just as an investor diversifies her portfolio to mitigate risk, we should diversify our personal identities through pursuing a diverse and dynamic set of personal commitments.
Every commitment represents 1 hypothesis for who we think we are. As we go through life, we’re constantly editing out, modifying, and adding new hypothesis’ into our identity portfolio. With every iteration the feeling of deep peace and alignment grows. What we value, do, say, and think become increasingly harmonious.
“What if we see ourselves more like a bowl of salad, with each ingredient adding to the flavor?
What if we see ourselves more like a painting, with different colors and textures mixed?
What if the two seemingly contradicting selves can coexist? What if we are borderless?
What if we can choose to live on, discarding the borders that have been imposed upon us?”
- Tina He
Diversifying our identities sound great in theory, but why is this so difficult in practice?
My hunch is that we are inundated by a societal inertia that coaxes us into choosing a single identity, and doing so quickly:
- We have a strong desire to be liked and take on identities that we know others will celebrate. Being disliked takes courage.
- It’s easier on “society”: Economic models and businesses benefit when each worker stays in their chosen lane. Advertisers make more money when they understand precisely who we are and who we want to be. Most people you meet day to day, with their energy efficient brains, subconsciously want to reduce us into known categorizations quickly.
- We, subconsciously or consciously, crave a fixed identity : The downfall of a mono religion and culture - especially in the melting pot that is America - no longer gives us default frameworks to make sense of the world. The crutch of a set identity, helps alleviate this cognitive overhead. The life we’re born into gives us a set of early childhood experiences that imprint an identity during our mind’s most impressionable phase. Deviating from this is uncomfortable as it entails rewiring deep neural pathways. Lastly, having a fixed identity provides psychological safety from failure.
As you can see, the desire for a fixed identity can be very mentally intoxicating and primally comfortable.
This is further amplified by the fact that “hits of identity” are especially easy to acquire these days through our wallets and institutions. These are the:
- Clothes we wear and possessions we acquire eg. street and luxury items feed on our desire to signal an identity.
- Companies we work for become “who we are” and what we’re worth to others.
- Or institutions where we’ve been educated - whether that’s the local community college, Harvard or YC, these institutions may tell us that we are a certain type of person destined for a certain type of life.
As millennials growing up in the Internet age, we substituted our own mission statements with that of our employers, purchased peace of mind through Glossier facemasks and Casper mattresses, and mistook grids of travel snapshots to be a personality type.
It’s not that these proxies are inherently inaccurate or damaging. Indeed, they represent values we may care about deeply. The problem arises when we go to these proxies looking for identity, instead of these proxies being byproducts and external manifestations of our internal values. Inside-out vs. outside-in.
When we’re young and don’t have a strong grasp of who we are, these proxies expose us to ideals and values we may internalize as our own. However, it’s problematic when they become the primary source by which we mine our identities going into adulthood. Instead of doing the hard work of solidifying our values through trials and reflection, we may lean on these proxies as sole inputs into who we are.
From the time we’re 18 and asked to commit to a major and write college essays, it is impressed on us that a fixed identity - knowing who we are - is key to being successful in life.
So we commit to identities that are hugely influenced by parental pressure, childhood trauma, and social expectations, at a time when we don't have enough self-knowledge to really understand what makes us happy.
And then we're surprised when our achievements don't convert to fulfillment. - Ava H.
I’ve learned the hard way that none of these proxies are silver bullets in acquiring a strong sense of identity:
- In high school, I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, socio-economically and racially. I was a mirror to what I thought was “cool” around me. I had my Baby-Phat-Jordan-Sneakers wearing phase. Instead of studying, I memorized Hip-Hop lyrics and went to 106.1 KMEL concerts in Oakland.
- This stood in stark contrast to my summers, where my parents shipped me off to the Beijing Language and Culture University to study Chinese with international students. I became privy to a new kind of socio-economic divide, given the time I spent between karaoke-ing in futuristic high-rises and eating roadside dumpings in dusty “hutong” alleys.
- In college, I leaned into my Asian-American identity given that the UC system strongly represents this group. I tried out Korean church groups, asian business frats, and student council. I interned at 6 different companies before graduating thinking I would find my passion in the process.
- After graduating, I got swept up into the yuppie lifestyle of working in consulting and then tech. My identity felt inextricably tied to my job. I went on many extravagant trips booked on points and acquired my first West Elm couch. I had a stellar instagram feed and was constantly “busy” with pleasurable short-term distractions. None of this made me truly happy and fulfilled.
Though one may feel solace through the proxies of job, processions, and institutional affiliations in the short-term, I’ve learned that they dilute and stifle self-understanding in the long-term.
Having a fixed identity often restricts you to a local maxima. And somewhere deep inside, I think we know when we’ve either chosen the wrong identity or have come up against its inherent shallowness.
So how do we arrive at our truest selves and values? I believe it is only through trying on numerous identities and failing, over and over again, that we begin to develop an intuition towards who we truly are. This means letting go of the notion that your identity is fixed, printed on a brand label, or ordained to you by external institutions and people. It means sacrificing the desire to be liked, in order to secure self-respect.
It means maximizing the surface area of life experiences you can undergo, trades you can tinker in, emotional depths waded into with no safety gear, and lives you can live through masters dead and alive.
Reading, creating, traveling, loving, learning, un-learning and getting ripped apart at every turn. Leaving behind people, ideas, and careers you once ferociously loved, to make space for ones that will take you to new maximas. And to courageously put one foot in front of the other, knowing that nothing was ever done in vain, in the creation of the artwork that is your life.
That doesn't mean I don't pursue goals or commit to relationships today. Rather it means that I don’t try to wall myself off from change and uncertainty. I maintain a flexible relationship to “who I am” by constantly keeping a rotating identity portfolio of my best-guess swings at what makes me happy. Some commitments don’t change much, while other parts of my identity are in constant renegotiation.
"Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves.
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. - John Gardner
Like iron, our identities only become clearer once they’re put through the fire of experiences. To die, decombust, recombine, and renew upon ever-compounding plateaus of self-knowledge. As a result, they are never fixed or homogeneous in nature. Your personal identity portfolio is never locked into one final permutation.
Instead, it’s an abounding and bustling sampling of what alights your soul at any one point at time, and for plethoras of “point-in-times” thereafter.
You are both everything and nothing at the same time. And this thought, for me at least, is incredibly freeing. To continuously keep your identity flexible and open, is to be truly anti-fragile.
As D.H. Lawrence puts it: "Some people have a lot farther to go from where they begin to get where they want to be—a long way up the mountain, and that is how it has been for me. I don’t feel I am getting older; I feel I am getting closer.”