The systematic inquiry of who we are and what we believe in

I am officially 25. A quarter of my life lived and behind me. It went by relatively quick — a lot quicker than young me would’ve thought. Often times when we hit a numerical milestone like this one we will try to sum up the meaning of it. It frequently leads to questions of who’ve we become, whether we’re happy with that, our role in society and even the metaphysical inquiry of our own existence. Who and how do we see ourselves relative to the world is a good one too.

All those questions derive from one fundamental inquiry — and it is the question of our identity.

Your identity, the building blocks that ground you as a unique individual and abstractly fortifies you as a person is something that we’ve all struggled with defining. I don’t mean that bullsh*t answer you give when a job interviewer asks you to tell them about yourself — or is that valid? Is your identity based on where you’re from, what you’ve done and why you’re nervously sitting in front of a complete stranger in a tailored suit behind a desk in a brightly lit office? If you accept that, then are we our resume? Is our identity best defined by the bullet points we’ve drafted on an 8 by 11?

I don’t know.

What I do know and what I’ve learned these last couple of months is that it is risky and at times dangerous when we do merge our professional titles and our material accolades to our identity. If our identity is rooted in our jobs and our financial value in society then who we are will always be dependent on the businesses who calculated enough value in us to employ us. If our identity is tied with our role and how much we much money we make in the economy then we will always be at risk of being — if not already, fragmented. All it takes is for someone to get the promotion that you wanted or for someone to win the lottery to make you question your identity. You’ll always be one missed shot or one job rejection away from shattering. Nevertheless, many of us will still base our identity on what society deems has worth and economic value.

I am no different.

The most popular and convenient way to form your identity is by doing so empirically. Your past is often how people judge your character so why not your identity. All the things you’ve said and done in the past can be meshed together to be a ball of you — figuratively. Everything from your habits to your interactions to the things you have chosen to idolize will be used as data points for you and others to plot a picture of you. What your identity denotes to will simply be an aggregation of data. Are we okay with that? Are we comfortable to build our identity on our past?

Yes, you can argue that we’re not merely using our past to build our identity but by the experience and wisdom that we’ve derived from it. A true empiricist approach to identity. That…well that I can agree with more.

On the other side of the spectrum, can I be defined by my ambitions and goals? Is it the future “me” that holds weight? Many of us view ourselves not in the past or present tense but rather who we envision ourselves being in the future where we’ve accomplished X, completed Y, and achieved Z. One can seemingly allocate the variables that make up their identity to the projected variables of who they will be down the line simply by claiming that their work and mindset just haven’t found the opportunity to flourish yet. I like to call this the “you-wait-and-see” identity (aha) and I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Is that permissible though?

Many hold very unique images of themselves compared to society’s understanding of them; some more perfect and some not so perfect. Then is it that our identity is fluid? May we pivot and redefine as we choose? Does our identity alter as we age? Is our identity solely phases of identities timestamped by our life’s agenda? My identity can be a reckless teenager turned college bro turned young professional living life turned 40-year-old dad of teenage girls who still thinks he’s hip. Are we just combinations of life phases?

I don’t know.

Would it be justified to say that our identity should be based on the present? Is it the values and perspectives I hold now that define my identity? For a lot of us right now I think that is the case. Identity politics is huge and it plays to our natural desire to categorize and label our beliefs. Do you identify as a conservative or a liberal, the democratic party or the republican party? What do you believe in? Alrighty — now are you those beliefs? Maybe but is it enough to be part of your identity? For some maybe but for others maybe not. It’s tough.

Or is it how we react to situations that define us? Are we judged by how we tackle and interpret the things that life throws at us? Are we our worse challenges? I’m sure many of us who have gotten the chance to settle down and think about the infrastructure that makes up our system of reasoning and perspectives we’ll have a relatively significant event (or multiple events) in the past that we can point to that a lot of it is derived from. It’s that saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” right? Yeah, that one.

Many of us, oddly enough also attach a great deal of our identity to things that we had no control over like our ethnicity and citizenship. By no means do I think that being proud of one’s own racial background or country of origin is wrong (I am a participant) but rather I question why it plays such an important role in our identity. I’m a proud Chinese-Canadian and I wouldn’t have it any other way. With that said, when I zoom myself out of the situation it feels odd to be so proud of something and so heavily identify with but had no control over. It’s strange when you think about it. We have no control over our ethnicity and our birthplace yet we are so quick to label ourselves as such. We even start wars, fight our neighbours, and segregate entire communities because of it. Not something I want to dive too deep into but yeah, food for thought.

Now back to identity.

What I’ve struggled with over the past few years is not defining my identity but rather separating my identity from my idea of value. I am a relatively confident and self-aware individual (or at least I would like to believe so) but even then I’ve found myself unwittingly and sometimes intentionally integrating a lot of what society deems as worthy and valuable to my own identity. I’ve somehow built a significant portion of the foundation of my identity on the basis of external approval — and that’s scary.

Like many of you reading this, I’m extremely passionate and dedicated in my career. I love everything about it. From the process to the impact, I enjoy going to work. It is foolish and unrealistic to expect someone who dedicates 8 hours a day almost every day in majority of their adult life to their career and not associate a large part of who they are to their work.

With that said, it is still a problem.

Society constantly labels people by their occupation. Dora “the explorer” and Bob “the builder” are prime examples of that — odd examples but examples nevertheless. We’ve been ingrained about the types of careers we want to have from the day we learned to walk. Do you want to be an astronaut or do you want to be a teacher? Do you want to be a police officer or do you want to be a chef? Do you want to be X or do you want to be Y? Who you want to be and what you decide is or most definitely will be part of your identity.

You: Oh wait for a second Danny… I thought you said it is dangerous for us to associate and build our identity on our role in society such as our careers?

Well, I’m glad you asked for clarification.

My problem with merging our identity with our careers is that it often leads to what the industry calls a “rat race”. We pick a profession (i.e. becoming the mouse), get hired by a company (i.e. the maze), then we aggressively run around for the cheese (i.e. promotions). We measure our worth and success on how much people pay us and how many people work under us. It’s almost effortless to do so when we can compare everything and everyone with a single click.

That is my problem.

An individual I admire greatly one day quoted who I believe was inspired by one of Kid Ink’s song “don’t be a meatball lost in the sauce”. That is more true than ever. I often find myself lost in the sauce.

I am okay with myself deriving a part of my identity from my professional career under one rule — and it is that I am driven by the mission that it enables me to make progress in. It is definitely a privileged way of perceiving one’s career but it is important that if we consciously choose to merge our identity with our career then it must not simply be a mere means to an end. If a portion of your identity is seeking material gain and approval from others then that foundation you’ve set for yourself will (not if) fall.

If we try to root ourselves in things that are fundamentally dependent on other people’s acceptance and measure our worth based on society’s materialistic metric for success like buying new cars and brand name clothes then we will ultimately find ourselves trying to redefine our identity on a regular basis. It is almost certain that we will continually question the time we’ve spent doing the things we’ve been doing and be concerned about the future because our identity was not based on who we are but rather coasting on who others wanted you to be or better yet who you wanted others to believe you were.

If you build a house on a foundation that is weakened and uncertain then the house will inevitably fall. Don’t be that house.

Here’s a cool quote:

“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”- Unknown Source

You’re probably expecting a conclusive answer on how we should see our identity but I’m not because well, I don’t have one. I’m not you or your mom. You’ll figure out what contributes to your identity yourself. I just hope my perspective provides somewhat of a reminder that identity is much more complex and significant than we tend to see it. It’s also a powerful thing to be aware of and understand your own identity.

My best practical advice is — to not put all your eggs in one basket. Your identity is important and should never be taken likely but like many things in life, it has to be controlled and moderated. Take your metaphorical eggs as things you care about such as your family, career, religion, interests, etc. You might put a few eggs in one basket and a few more in the other. That is up to you but try not to put too many eggs in one basket because if that basket breaks and all the eggs fall on the floor and crack then your identity will too crack. Be aware of who you are and really get to know yourself.

If you can take anything from this I hope that you leave with two questions; one is to really question your identity and what are the pillars that hold you up, and two is to honestly ask yourself about your mission and whether you’re actively making progress.

A quarter of a century old and I have yet to make sense of life.

I guess we just gotta keep going.