A simple request, but one of the most difficult and dynamic to fulfill. Too often the only times we think about who we are is when prompted by others, and our response is largely conditioned by the context. You introduce yourself differently at a job interview than you do on a blind date (…at least I hope so…). Your LinkedIn profile is different than your Instagram or Tinder profile. We describe ourselves based on the medium and audience, but have you paused and asked yourself the question? How would you define yourself? And how can you design the identity you want?
“It’s never been more asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places” — Courtney Martin
Our identity has become compartmentalized — modular blocks of information that we pick and choose to represent the whole. In doing so we let the expectations of others shape our identity based on the credentials and experiences that we believe others deem important. We let external associations — from degrees and jobs to our religion and race — define us, and in doing so are subjugated to interpretations of those labels. How can we reconcile all the facets of our lives into a working holistic understanding of our identity? Or simply —
How might we actively define and design our identity to guide who we are?
As a customer experience and digital strategy consultant, I help companies reframe and understand their users’ needs, and design relevant products to address them. This approach is built on empathetic and objective understanding, developing a future vision, and creating a model to realize that vision. We can take a similar approach here.
We need to first consider the concept of ‘identity’ and what it really means to be you. Now that’s a loaded undertaking — one with countless philosophical interpretations, as well as cultural and religious implications. (I do recommend exploring the topic— not only what it does it mean to ‘be you,’ but what does it mean to be human?) In this context, we usually refer to our profession and experience as who we are more broadly. This ‘what’ is important but does not encapsulate the full picture. We need to consider not just what we do, but first why and how we do.
I propose the following working definition:
Identity = 1. Values + 2. Principles + 3. Daily Actions
1. Values: Build the foundation
Theseus was an ancient Greek king who fought many naval battles, and his ship was preserved in his honor. Over time, parts of the ship rotted away and were replaced with new ones. Eventually all parts of ship had been replaced. Is the ship still the same as the original? At what point can the pieces be removed where the ship is still the same ship, where you are still you?
Instead of starting outward, first look inward. Jobs come and go, but what endures are your inner values and beliefs. Even if you never thought about your values, there is an underlying set of beliefs you have that guide your decisions. What are they? When you strip away all the external parts of your ship — your credentials, degrees, work experiences — what’s ultimately inside?
Consider: Who do you admire and why? Think beyond what those people do, and look at what their actions represent.
2. Principles: Set the direction
You have your ship, now how do you want your values to manifest themselves? Create a working model of your principles — how you want to live your life. We can think of this in 3 parts:
- How do you think?
- How do you behave and act?
- How do you engage and interact with the world?
Let the principles serve as a guide for your decisions and the direction you seek — the operating model of how you conduct yourself. It can be difficult thinking about what our values and principles are (author’s note: stay tuned for an upcoming piece on this) — but one simple way is with nouns and verbs. Your values should be the foundational nouns, or “things” that you hold dear — the things you care about. Your principles are the verbs — what and how you do what you do. As one example, I personally value positivity and mindfulness, and so one of my principles is to “emit positive energy to those around me and stay immersed in the present.”
Consider: How would you want people to describe you? What do you want to be known for?
3. Daily Actions: Live each day through your identity
Every action you take becomes a ‘vote’ for the type of person you want to become — James Clear
Our values and principles are our life’s ship and compass — but the collection of all your ‘todays’ makes up your life itself. What are you doing on a daily basis today, and is it aligned with your inner values and principles?
Consider: What does your current daily routine look like? What can you add or remove to align it with the life you seek?
“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth” Robert Penn Warren
Like life itself, your identity is not fixed. It is dynamic and requires reflection and shaping. And the more we define who we are on externalities and circumstances, the less control we have in actively guiding our own life. Now I’m not suggesting that at your next networking event or party you necessarily outline all these components of your identity. But any introduction should be derived from your internal foundation. The only wrong way to define your identity is by passively letting others do so. Craft the ship that is true to you, and live each day towards the direction you seek.
Interested in more?
I write, present, and facilitate workshops on life design. Sign up here to stay up to date, learn practical strategies, tools, and tips on living a full life.
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