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Keep Your Identity Small

Daily Stoic Emails

In a must-read essay several years ago, the entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham spoke about the importance of reducing our attachments to labels. Too many people firmly see themselves as programmers or artists, Democrats or Republicans, this race or that ideology. We tie our identity to what we do for a living or what we currently believe or what we think is cool–and then, the longer we hold this identity, the harder it is to switch. It’s also why it ends up being so explosive when someone directly–or even indirectly–challenges any of these things. They thought they were making a lawyer joke or an observation about Donald Trump and then, boom, they stepped on the landmine of how the people around them see themselves. 

Tim Wu wrote about this recently for the New York Times in a more mundane context. Because people are so obsessed with being seen as the best at things, it actually deprives them of the joy of ordinary hobbies and educational experiences. “When your identity is linked to your hobby,” he wrote, “you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?” Or more pointedly, what are you doing wasting all that time?!

If we ever want to be at peace with our choices or secure in our own skin, we have to stop this. Tyler Durden in Fight Club expresses the truth of it beautifully: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.” You are not who you voted for. You are not the city of your birth. You’re not how good you are at golf. You’re not your socioeconomic status either. You’re just you. 

Seneca certainly understood the allure of identifying with power and wealth. On multiple occasions, he also knew the pain of losing both those things. That’s why he too urged us to keep our identities small. Epictetus and Marcus talked about maintaining independent thought for the same reason. The smaller our identity, the smaller the target, the smaller the landmine to be unconsciously stepped on. 

Be open. Be flexible. Be unconcerned with the label on the back of your khakis.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 18, 2018. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.