The Ultimate Guide to Knowing Yourself and Discovering Who You Really Are
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Here’s a clickable Table of Contents, just in case you want to come back and reread a specific part:
The 5 Worst Ways to Discover Your Identity How do You Really Find Your Identity A Framework for Your Identity Keep Your Identity Small Your Identity Starter Pack
A few days ago, an old friend from med school reached out to me. I was glad to hear from her because we hadn’t talked in years. After a few pleasantries she asked a short but surprisingly complex question:
How have you been?
On the surface, this looks like a variant of the usual “How are you”. But it’s not. At least not when you want to give a clear answer containing everything that has happened in your life over the past 10-or-so years.
The most honest answer would be: different. As in I’m definitely not the same person I was back then. Which got me thinking.
Who are we really? What defines us? How can we discover our true identity?
The two most important days in your life are they day you’re born and the day you discover why
Like most truth-seekers nowadays, I tried to answer this life-defining question using Google. And I was horrified.
The top pages are filled with bullshit advice telling you to close your eyes, look deep inside your soul, and expect the answer to pop right up. And if that doesn’t work you’re probably doing it wrong, so here’s a book/course/device that will help you out.
My favorite line came from a hugely popular site, saying we need to “peer through an alternate reality if we wish to discover who we really are.”
Good luck with that!
There’s also a huge pile of advice out there that’s outright dangerous. I should know. Following such popular advice landed me in the deepest identity crisis I’ve ever experienced. So before you follow any of the feel-good, empower-yourself gurus out there, here are the top 5 things you should avoid.
The 5 Worst Ways to Discover Your Identity
1. Identifying With a Job or Title
This is a common mistake, but understandably so. For centuries people have been defined by their jobs. You were known throughout town as “the doctor” or “the blacksmith”. Your trade was a major part of your identity. That’s how names like Baker, Muller, or Molnar came into existence.
Things started to change about 50 years ago. And the pace of change has been increasing ever since.
For our grandparents, it was a common thing to show lifetime loyalty towards a company. They were known as “Bob, the mechanic down the corner” or “John, the director at Ford”.
But your parents most likely had more than one workplace during their career. They probably changed their fields of activity a few times too.
And nowadays it’s quite common to find yourself at a new firm every 2 years.
So defining your identity through your job is just about the worst thing you can do. I don’t care if it’s your dream job. I don’t care if it comes with paid vacation and health insurance for the whole family. And I don’t care how hard you’ve worked to get it.
People change, priorities change, and so do jobs.
This doesn’t mean you can’t love your job and enjoy every second doing it. Just don’t let your job define who you are.
2. Identifying With a Relationship
I’m guessing most of you have had your heart broken at least once. And if you haven’t, just trust me when I’m telling you it sucks. Big time.
And the worst part is, you never know when it’s gonna happen. I’m not just talking about breaking up with your one true love. Ending a relationship might mean drifting away from a lifelong friend, loosing a beloved mentor, or witnessing the death of a family member. And if you’re not careful, it might even mean losing a job ⏤ yes, some people have a relationship with their job.
One thing is certain: if the relationship was important, it will leave a huge hole in your life. You don’t want to make that hole 100 times bigger by attaching a part of your identity to it.
Again, this doesn’t mean you don’t value the relationship. Or that you shouldn’t be fully invested. If you’re lucky enough, that relationship may very well be the best thing in your life. But that doesn’t mean it’s who you are.
3. Identifying With a Passion
We’re living in a world of passion inflation. You constantly hear people saying things like “I love running”, “I love doughnuts”, or “I absolutely freaking love my new mascara”.
It’s time to get real. Loving a brand, an activity, or certain foods is not only absurd, but also dangerous. It’s how we got people with unhealthy relationships to food and attention-avid Instagram posers who get depressed if they don’t hit 1.000 likes on their latest pic.
But there’s an even worse type of passion identification going around. And despite some really smart people telling everyone to not fall for this crap, it somehow keeps attracting more and more victims. You know what I’m talking about.
It’s the Just follow your passion bullshit out there.
This is probably the worst advice I’ve received in my whole life. It combines two big identity mistakes (Points 1 and 3) into one seductive poison. This is then served under different forms and flavors, including pub-toilet quotes like
and my all-time favorite
Such sayings are often attributed to Mark Twain, Steve Jobs, or Albert Einstein, to give them more weight. In truth, they never said these words. And if you took the time to read their biographies, you would know that they’d roll over in their graves listening to such rubbish. But that’s beside the point.
There’s nothing wrong with having passions. It can be quite healthy to have some, regardless if it happens to coincide with your job or not.
But passions change as you change. And you never know when or how you will change. So don’t let your passions define you.
4. Identifying With a Belief
Beliefs are a delicate topic. Not because of their complexity, but because people tend to make them part of their identity. Thus, when you question one of their core beliefs, it feels like you’re attacking their persona. Which tends to bring any productive discussion to an abrupt and ugly end.
This has to change.
For each of your beliefs, there’s a set of reasons. These can be made up or backed by science, induced through repetition or caused by a single major event, based on the authority of one or the voices of many. The possibilities are infinite.
I don’t care what your reasons are. Let’s just both agree that you have a set of reasons for everything you believe. OK? Good.
Now that we’ve established that you’re not a lunatic ⏤ what else would you call someone who believes things for no reason at all? ⏤ let me show you why you shouldn’t identify with your beliefs.
To make things clearer I will use three popular examples: religion, politics, and science.
Religion. There are many types of religious beliefs and they seem to have existed ever since humans were evolved enough to understand such concepts. There have always been people who believed in one god, many gods, or no god at all. The definitions vary, the legends vary, and so do the arguments. But they all have one thing in common: a set of reasons.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’re a Christian or a Muslim. Now suppose that, through some absurd and far-fetched miracle, you could one day talk to God/Allah. He would invite you to heaven (or descend in your living room if that’s comfier) and introduce you to his brothers Vishnu and Ganesha. He would then go on to explain that Christians/Muslims have misunderstood the holy texts and that in fact there are many gods, all equal among them.
Admittedly, this is an extreme case. But such an experience should make you reconsider your current religious beliefs. Or at least seriously question them. And you can only do that if religion is not a part of your identity.
Politics. This is a much simpler concept. I believe in democracy. I also believe societies evolve best under certain forms of liberal government. But this is only because looking back on history, these rules seem to have produced the best outcomes ⏤ until now.
I’m certainly open to considering new alternatives. I’m pretty sure they exist. And if they prove to be more useful for societies and for humanity as a whole, then I’m more than ready to change my current political beliefs. Without giving up an ounce of my identity.
Science. If you’re a regular reader of my blog you already know I’m a scientist. And if you’re anything like me, you probably also trust the scientific method. Meaning you believe the results of thorough, replicable scientific experiments.
These include some of my most strongly held beliefs. I strongly believe in gravity, thermodynamics, or the efficacy of monoclonal antibodies. I believe enough to entrust my life in them.
But if at some point there would be new scientific evidence showing that some of these beliefs are wrong, I would be ready to change them ⏤ not easily, but definitely. Again, this wouldn’t affect any part of my identity.
5. Identifying With Personal History
This is a tricky one. We tend to make personal history a part of our identity because it has served us well in the past.
As children, one of the first things we learn is to identify our parents ⏤ which is useful for many reasons. As we get older, we also learn that we’re members of different groups (of friends and relatives, members of society, citizens of a country) and identify as such.
This is useful for our evolution as an individual and for the human species as a whole. But only up to a point.
And that point is adulthood.
As an adult, you should develop your own identity and no longer rely on your history to do so. Why? Because otherwise you risk being sucked into the behavior of the herd.
Let me give you some examples.
If you identify strongly with your family’s history and status, you’re hampering your potential for becoming something else.
But maybe you come from a family with great values and proud history. Maybe your parents and grandparents were all lawyers and you want to get into law too. Then it’s all nice and dandy.
But what if you don’t?
What if you want to discover who you are, not who you will inherit? What if you want to become a circus acrobat and tour the world? You should be able to decide without giving up a part of your identity.
If you identify strongly with the society you were born and/or raised in, you run an even greater risk of devolving into groupthink. Where we are born and how we are brought up are both matters of luck. But as an adult, it’s your responsibility to choose what values you stand for.
Imagine you were born in Germany in the 1930s and got “educated” by the Nazi propaganda. You grow up learning to hate Jews, gay people, and anyone with colored skin. But once you’re old enough to think for yourself, you understand how wrong these ideas are. You want to escape from this narrow world vision and start seeing all people as equals.
This is in itself no easy task. But if you’re also personally invested in these views, if you identify as a Nazi, it will be almost impossible to break free.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).Mark Twain
Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you that defining your identity using these traits is a bad idea.
But where do we go from here?
You started reading this post because you wanted to find out how to discover your true identity, right? Not because you wanted to know what you’re doing wrong.
Well, I promise that by the end you will know how to do it. But right now I need you to bear with me. When the impulse comes, do not close this tab.
I’m about to give you the most anticlimactic answer in the history of existential questions.
How do You Really Find Your True Identity
Now before you fill up with rage and frustration and decide to close this tab, hear me out for a sec.
Trying to discover your identity is a bit like trying to solve Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics. Or like doing the work of Sisyphus, if you’re into Greek mythology. Or, if you prefer plain English, it’s a futile task.
Let me explain why.
You are a human being. You’re a living, breathing organism that’s constantly changing ⏤ physically, intellectually, and emotionally. You’re continually adapting and reacting to everything going on in your life.
So why would you assume that your identity is different? We like to believe that there are certain things about us that will never change, no matter what. But that’s a lie.
Everything about you is constantly changing. Sure, your hair and fingernails are changing faster than the synapses inside your brain or the structure of your bones. Some changes are immediately visible, others take time to observe. But change is always taking place.
Which is a good thing! This helped us survive and evolve long enough to ask ourselves such complex questions.
It also means that everything your identity contains ⏤ thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and values ⏤ all of it is constantly changing.
It’s why I said at the beginning of this post that I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago. And I’m grateful for it. Ten years ago I would have given anything for the life I have today.
So does this mean that we don’t have a true Identity?
No, of course not. Your identity is as real as the cells in your blood (which are replaced every couple of days/weeks depending on the cell type). That doesn’t make them less real or less important.
They are vital ⏤ just like your identity. And they pass on important information to the next generation of cells. That’s the way your body gets smarter organically, without you even realizing it.
A similar thing happens with your identity.
A Framework for Your Identity
This has been a long ride ⏤ over 2.000 words long. So thanks for sticking with me. We’re now nearing the end of our journey of self-discovery.
We’ve established that your identity is a dynamic trait, so you shouldn’t try to pin it down. And we’ve seen what you shouldn’t use to define it.
So what should you use?
A good answer comes from Stanford University professor Paul Saffo. It’s called Strong Opinions, Weakly Held.
This is a two-step process designed to help managers and entrepreneurs make important decisions under uncertain conditions. These people have to make predictions without knowing what new information might pop up in the future.
You know who else is in such a situation? You, trying to discover your true identity.
So let’s steal a page from the Handbook of Successful Decision Makers and see how we can apply this process to our own lives.
My mantra … is strong opinions, weakly heldPaul Saffo
Step 1: The Studious Professor
You gather all the data you can find on a certain topic. This typically includes your past experiences, but also information from books, and lessons learned from others. Look for anything that would help you understand that topic. How does it work? How did other people come to this conclusion? What are the alternatives?
Now digest it all and come up with a conclusion. That’s your working hypothesis.
Step 2: The Angry Hulk
Now take everything you’ve learned and tear it all down. Seriously. Start looking for weak spots in your hypothesis. Talk to people holding different ideas, listen to what the opposing side has to say, and consider all the counterarguments you can find. But do it with an open mind.
Charles Darwin used this method to test his theories. And he’s done quite well for himself, hasn’t he?
I had, also, during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.Charles Darwin
The opinions you form during Step 1 should be strong, meaning that they should be based on facts and well-thought-out arguments. But hold them loosely. This means being ready to modify or even discard your opinions if they are invalidated by new information during Step 2.
The more poking an idea can take without crumbling, the stronger it becomes.
The ability to destroy your ideas rapidly instead of slowly when the occasion is right is one of the most valuable things. You have to work hard on it. Ask yourself what are the arguments on the other side. It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents.Charlie Munger
Step 3: The Thoughtful Designer
Take the ideas that survived. If you’ve done step 2 right, they shouldn’t be more than a handful (more on that in a minute). Treat these ideas carefully, as they are the building blocks of your identity. Now, just like a designer, use them to craft an identity that’s lean, durable, and resilient. Use the following formula:
I currently am someone who … [does this, thinks this, acts like this, etc.]
To design is to communicate clearlyMilton Glaser
And that, my dear reader, is how you build a strong identity ⏤ one that can withstand the hardships of life.
Keep Your Identity Small
Just like building a muscle, we are tempted to make our identities bigger and bigger. Knowing where you stand makes things easier (e.g. being a democrat or republican, being religious or not, etc.). It also gives us a sense of belonging. And it helps us think less.
But making your identity as big as possible is not the goal. You want it to be strong and flexible, not bulky and immovable.
So keep your identity small.
There’s a great little essay on this topic by Paul Graham. He makes a strong case for keeping the list of things that define you as short as possible. This will help you have an open mind and give you the ability to discuss any topic without taking things personally. Both these things will make you a more pleasant person.
Your Identity Starter Pack
If there’s one thing I learned in anatomy class, it’s that people like to put their name on things they discover. I haven’t discovered the Identity Muscle (yet) so, sadly, I don’t get to name it. But I can show it to you.
Just like all the real muscles in your body, this one also needs 3 things to become stronger, more resilient, and better defined: stress, rest, and nutrients.
We’ve already discussed how to stress the ideas that define who you are. Apply those concepts and your identity will get stronger.
You also need to give your identity muscle some rest from time to time. Let your newly-formed ideas sink in. Consolidate them. Otherwise, the whole thing will break down and you will wind up with an identity crisis.
The nutrients that help you build a stronger identity come in the form of questions. Deep, meaningful, and carefully crafted questions. These will help you discover who you are now, at this point in time.
Maybe you will be the same a year from now, maybe not. Either way, it’s helpful knowing where you stand today. So here are a few questions to get you started:
What makes you happy?
This sounds like a no-brainer. Ice cream and pizza!
Sure, but try to go deeper. What gives you long-lasting pleasure? Maybe it’s having good relationships, deep conversations, or something entirely different.
Look at the big picture of your life. What made you happy as a child? What has given you pleasure for the past 5 years? Do those things still work? Try them and find out. If they still make you happy, prioritize them. If not, try something new.
What are your goals in life?
If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorableSeneca
This was true 2.000 years ago and it’s still true today. If you don’t have clear goals, not only will you lack a destination, but also a clear picture of who you really are.
Are you someone who wants to start a business? Or maybe a charity? Are you dreaming of a big family? Do you want to travel all over the world?
Sit down, pen and paper in hand (yes, you have to write this down!), and make a list of your life goals. Again, think long term, and think big.
These goals will change too, but having them clearly written on a sheet of paper will give your life direction. And having a clear direction strengthens your identity.
What if you want to change direction? You make a new list. As long as your ship is strong enough, you can pick any direction you want.
How can you make the world a better place?
This is something that should be part of your identity. And it doesn’t have to be big. You don’t have to solve climate change or cure cancer to make the world a better place.
Plant a tree.
Make someone smile.
Raise a healthy child.
These are all things that improve the world we live in. You might not see it immediately, but don’t give up. This is a long game. And so is discovering who you really are.
This is just the starter kit. As you move through life, keep asking questions ⏤ about your beliefs, your preferences, and everything important.
Because life is a beautiful thing. And too many of us go through life without knowing who we really are. But you are now equipped with the knowledge to discover your true identity. Put it to good use.
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