Small Identity, Simple Core

So far, we have set the goal of this project and defined success, but we still have to figure out how to effect change. Self-improvement is hard, and we are best served by taking into account who we are before trying to become who we want to be.

I previously used the metaphor of working with the grain, because many aspects of ourselves are particularly resistant to change. When working with wood, this manifests in the grain, and these comparatively weak wood fibers can easily deflect the path of a metal saw or chisel. Bringing this back to people, our grain is manifested by our identity.

Paul Graham has a great essay entitled, “Keep Your Identity Small.”

More generally, you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn’t engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people’s identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn’t safely talk about with others.

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

If our identity affects our reason, we who value reason are well-served keeping this identity small. If we can do this, everything beyond the very core of our being can evaluated and changed. We can change when circumstances change, and we can move from who we are to who we want to be.

Another related idea that has long resonated with me is having strong opinions, weakly held1. I have always tried to be changeable, and I beyond claiming this, I try to make sure I use the actual words, “I was wrong,” lest I fool myself when forming the memory. Although this is hard work,2 I take a perverse sort of pride in being proved wrong. I think by now this is a part of my identity. I hope it is.

What is at your core? What do you want it to be? I think our identities can change, but it has to be done slowly and self consciously. Step one is honestly defining the starting point. Every conscious and unconscious part of our minds rails against what threatens our identity, but this war can be won when we know we’re fighting.

Keep your identity small, and know this will be hard.

  1. This link is to Jeff Atwood’s blog, and he is the first one I remember encapsulating this idea so succinctly. ↩︎
  2. My wife surely knows how often I need to recommit myself to this goal. ↩︎


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