How to Form an Identity

When we talk about identity, we often talk about it in terms of finding: how someone can find herself, or find what she likes doing. This was a view that appealed to me too. Charitably interpreted, it urges us to live life easily, follow our feelings, and let good things come when they do. But from a different perspective, it almost seems to suggest we wander around with figurative lightning rods and hope for our identities and passions to strike us. In other words, there is something left out about the necessary consciousness with which we form identities. The idea of finding also suggests that we wait to start our lives: That when we feel lost, we are no one, and that when lightning strikes us, we become someone and can stop changing. There is something off about this as well. Because of course, we are already someones, and the goal remains for us to constantly adapt to be fulfilled, regardless of our stage in life.

So how is identity really formed? Here are thoughts that have helped me.

I look at it from this perspective: Our identity is a story about ourselves which we tell ourselves. The story isn’t just crafted from one’s own life experiences or observations. It’s the understanding of how those experiences or observations work. To consider how different understandings can change a story, we can consider different viewpoints of the same fact. The easiest example is the proverb of the cup filled halfway, where the same cup has two interpretations. It’s half full. But it’s also half empty.

The identity with which we concern ourselves is usually not about static descriptions like this, although it can be. We may ask ourselves, ‘what do I look like,’ or ‘how do I speak?’ But often, these questions go deeper. We may want to know how we look or speak to understand our relation to a certain crowd, for example. In this way, these questions of identity ask more about our function. In this case, it asks about our function in relation to a crowd. Other questions similarly have to do with function: When we ask, ‘who are we,’ or ‘what is our purpose,’ we want to know what we will do in our contexts. The story which comprises our identity is both a history of our past actions and an understanding of how we’ll act in the future.

If identity is a story of a series of actions we perform, then it can be purposefully formed, because we can purposefully choose to perform actions. This is an idea I took from Eric Greitens’s self-help book, Resilience. Identity isn’t something achieved by only sitting down for long meditations and practicing self-love. It is conscious, and we choose to be someone when we volunteer, or refine our skills, or start our own businesses. In doing, failing, and learning, we establish more of a history of who we are, and gain more confidence about how to act in the future. Challenges are necessary to help us grow.

But while challenges are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient. Venturing out into the world isn’t the only thing we can do, and it’s not always the best thing to do. Learning comes in more ways than new trying things and failing by yourself. For example, you don’t have to use a knife carelessly and cut off a thumb before learning how to not cut yourself. You can first learn basic technique from others. Similarly, we don’t have to adress our issues of identity by ourselves; we have ancestors who navigated similar struggles, and other figures who navigated similar struggles. While we can form our stories with our own thoughts and actions, we can also add to them with others’.

In shaping my own identity within the past few weeks to find calm, I’ve found reading to be very helpful. First, I started with Resilience. After realizing how much I could learn from it, I went through What Every Body is Saying (a book on body language), then The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up, and now I’m going through The Intelligent Investor. These are all books focused on separate forms of self-improvement, and that much I hoped to gain from them. But there’s something more I realized I was getting, equally practical as the main goals the books’ authors intended to serve. With each book came someone accomplished who shared his or her thoughts and feelings, regrets and doubts. They may have not intended it, but they were providing me models beyond the direct advice they were giving. Benjamin Graham of The Intelligent Investor shows a driven, adaptive mindset which was aware of (and suffered from) the uncertainty of the stock market. It’s one that says we can tackle issues with calculated risks and still expect failure. Marie Kondo of … Magic of Tidying up shares a caring, growth-oriented mindset which has minimalism at its core. I’m happy to take these people as models to apply to my own life in areas in which I see them being helpful.

One of Greitens’s professors, the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, emphasized the power of models in stories. He described man as a ‘story-telling animal,’ and that without stories, we leave children (although I think this is true for adults too) anxious and unsure in their actions and words. Models, whether idealized in stories or actually existing, show us ways of living and being. They show us the functions of different people and things in relation to one another. Kondo shares her journey from tidying-obsessed kid to tidying-obsessed adult, along which she learns practical ways of cleaning as well its impact on both her and her clients’ psyches. Joe Navarro, author of What Every Body is Saying, details FBI cases which were furthered or stalled by his perception of body language.

How do we choose models for us? Firstly, I think typically real people, whether alive or dead, serve as much better models than fictional characters for the fact that their efforts were actually checked by reality. Beyond that, since identity is so rooted in doing—in facing our own challenges and failures—I find the best models are those who have overcome their own challenges in significant ways. Just as we form our identity through challenges, they forged theirs through the same. When we hear them speak or see them write about their challenges, we get a chance to understand the mindsets that helped them succeed, and to integrate parts of their mindsets into our own. In adopting their mindsets, we gain a sense of identity. Reading my books, especially Greitens’s, made me feel this way. With each set of chapters, I felt more like I could regulate my own emotions and find a fulfilling life path, and that there were others who could help me get there.

The antitheses of good models, unreliable models are those who have not lived out their advice. If a guru has not solved her own problems, she cannot expect to fix the same ones for others. I think there is an example of this trend in self-help where figures try to tout the benefits of self-love and the ignoring of others’ opinions. While elements of each may be useful for living, the people who often say this are too in the process of trying to respect themselves and function despite others’ judgment. Without having found their own solutions, they cannot frame the topics in the right light to give good advice. Would you listen to an angsty man telling you how to not be angsty?

When a model is chosen, she must be learned through narrative. What made my book authors so graspable to me was the fact that they told their points with their feelings and opinions attached, and in doing so, formed the sort of narrative that comes when one person talks to another.

I see narrative like this. If one were to just hear that Benjamin Graham was an intelligent investor, she would have some idea of who he was, but not really. If interested, she would ask for elaboration. If I told you Marcus Aurelius was brave, that would not communicate any sort of the type of brave he was: What was actually done to earn him the label of bravery. Descriptions like these are rough approximations of one’s character, and they must be further explored in the contexts of their subjects. This makes more sense when we acknowledge that first comes the living of a person, and after comes a word meant to label that life. We miss the life itself if we just hear the labels. As a more philosophical point, this is true of all words in general. Even when an author writes a whole book of his thoughts, each word is an approximation of his mental state, each sentence is an approximation, each paragraph, and so on. They just happen to be much closer approximations of his mental state than a general label might be. Words and sentences become more descriptive as they balance each other out in longer forms of writing, which fits them into a narrative: a sort of context that pieces them together. This is why I think books written by accomplished people are excellent forms of learning.

With my ideas on identity, I’ve resolved many anxieties in myself, and am able to put myself in a much more productive and fulfilled state. But of course, I am always adapting. This will always be true, and must be for anyone. When a virus-pandemic hits, businesses shutter, and loved ones fall, it is most evident that there is no such thing as having life completely figured out. I hope the ideas here will help you in your own adaptations and inspire you to use the tools that have helped me, by searching for models, learning through narrative, and challenging yourself.

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