Keep Your Identity Fluid [LINK]

by Peter_McIntyre1 min read3rd Mar 20158 comments


Personal Blog

Building on Graham's Small Identity, here I look at the hazards of identity, and give a suggestion for leveraging it to your advantage, as well as avoiding pitfalls. 

As per my last article, feel free to let me know what you think here, privately, or anonymously



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Kevin Simler's Prickles and Goo is also related: he talks about the advantages and disadvantages of having "prickly" (strong, solid) and "gooey" (weak, flexible) identities:

There are at least two significant benefits to being prickly:

  1. Having a large prickly identity makes you more socially salient. By standing up for yourself, you stand out from the crowd. You create a strong identity, and just as important, a legible identity. This stability and legibility make you a reliable platform for others to build on.
  2. George Bernard Shaw famously wrote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." The unreasonable man here is the prickly one. People who are gooey conform themselves too easily to their surroundings, and don't seek to impose themselves on the world.

The prickly people I know are all extremely useful in these two ways.

But clearly there are also benefits to being gooey:

  1. Having a gooey identity makes you more flexible. We speak of people who "go with the flow," or who are "easy-going." Flexibility makes you easier to work with, more amenable to compromise, more of a "team player." Whenever these things are useful, so is having a small-prickly/large-gooey identity.
  2. Being gooey leads to having a smaller ego. When ego gets in the way of making good decisions, gooey has the advantage.
  3. Finally, if Buddhism teaches us anything, it's that having a smaller prickly identity and a larger gooey identity makes us happier. The second of the Four Noble Truths holds that "the origin of suffering is attachment," i.e., prickles. "Let go," the Buddha invites us, "and you will be happy."


Luckily we don't need to make a single, categorical choice between having a prickly self and having a gooey self. We can make separate choices for each component of our identities. So the really important question becomes:

Which parts of your identity should be prickly, vs. which parts gooey?

Deciding where to put something — in the prickly part or the gooey part — depends on what game you're playing and how much you want to win.

The game of morality requires that you put your moral principles in the prickly, uncompromising part of your identity. If you don't, we'll accuse you of having loose (i.e. gooey) morals.

The game of science asks you to put all of your scientific beliefs in the gooey part of your identity, while holding fast and prickly to the principle of truth (and nothing else). To do otherwise — to maintain a scientific belief as part of your core, inviolable, prickly identity — is to sacrifice truth on the altar of ego: the cardinal sin of science.

The game of political debate is played by placing your political beliefs and values in the prickly parts of your identity. Scientifically this is reprehensible, but it seems necessary for winning arguments. (It may also be why science and politics go together like oil and water.) On the other hand, to operate successfully as a politician — to actually get things done, in a very messy world — requires the ability to become gooey at strategic moments.

The game of art — i.e., being an artist, especially of the "high art" variety — requires maintaining a hard (and unique) aesthetic sense. "Selling out" is the accusation we level at an artist who turns gooey in service of commercial success.

The game of art appreciation, on the other hand, is played (optimally) by treating all your aesthetic sensibilities as flexible and gooey. The more you hold fast to liking certain types of things (which, by implication, means you dislike other types of things), the narrower your appreciative range.

We could analyze other games this way (finance, happiness, marriage, acting, etc.), but I think you get the idea. Winning requires strategic identity construction — deciding when to yield and when to prickle.

Great stuff thanks.

I've thought of this advice to keep identity small as installing a new executive-level program, "Monitor group affiliations with potentially mind-killing emotional attachments". Since I've done that, it seems like all my attachments have become a lot more gooey.

This seems like a much more palatable idea to me than refusing to affiliate myself with groups and ideologies. (I really like affiliation, as long as I like the group.) This is also useful because I can best work towards certain goals by being a member of certain groups, and those groups tend to prefer members who genuinely care about a number of unrelated goals.


I keep finding analogies that let me post this paper all over the place, but here you go:

[-][anonymous]7y -4

I had enough Buddhist influence in my life that I used to find the idea of an identity at all downright ludicrous: are you saying not only that there is such a thing as a "me", but that me is even a specific thing or an instance of a kind?

An identity that is chosen sounds so ridiculous to me that I don't even know why people do it, maybe it is grasping for straws to avoid admitting a "me" does not exist.

However, I can understand identity as something given to you by birth and you do not cast it away because you realize people with the same identity are oppressed or just for whatever reason suffering and need a hand up.

Funny that the first word of a post rejecting the concept of an identity is "I".

Try dialing down the ridicule. No arguments are made, but you manage to call the opposing ideas ludicrous and ridiculous.

Also try dialing up the empathy. There are some reasons for embracing any belief beyond being unable to accept one's own error. Try to understand why someone might believe or act in a different way.