(cross posted on my roam blog)

There's an old Paul Graham Essay, "Keep Your Identity Small". It's short so it's worth it to read the whole thing right now if you've never seen it. The yisbifiefyb ("yeah it's short but i'm functionally illiterate except for your blog") is roughly "When something becomes part of your identity, you become dumber. Don't make things part of your identity."

I read that post some time in high school and thought, "Of course! You're so right Paul Graham. Cool, now I'll never identify as anything." I still think that Paul Graham is pointing out a real cluster of Things That Happen With People, but over time the concept of identity, and identifying as BLANK have started to feel less clear. It feels right to say "People get dumb when their identity is challenged" and it even feels sorta axiomatic. Isn't that what it means for something to be part of your identity? Thinking about it more I came up with a bunch of different ways of thinking of myself that all felt like identifying as BLANK, but it felt like unnecessary dropping of nuance to smoosh them all into the single concept of identity.

Identity Menagerie

Lets look at some examples of what identifying as a BLANK can look like:

  • Blake: "I do Cross Fit. "
  • Jane: "I'm smart. In fact I'm normally among the smartest in the room. I'm able to solve a lot of problems by just finding a clever solution to them instead of having to get stuck in grunt work. People often show awe and appreciation for my depth and breadth of knowledge."
  • Jay: "I the peacekeeper, the one always holding the group together."


Steve Andreas outlines the idea of a self-concept quite nicely:

Your self-concept is a sort of map of who you are. Like any other map, it is always a very simplified version of the territory. [...] Your self-concept, your "map" you have of yourself, has the same purpose as a map of a city—to keep you oriented in the world and help you find your way, particularly when events are challenging or difficult.

The thing you'll notice is it's nigh impossible to avoid having a self-concept. When Jane thinks of herself and how she can act on the world, "being smart" is a chunk of self-concept that summarizes a lot of her experiences and that she uses to guide decisions she makes.

Kaj Sotala has a good post about how tweaking and modifying his self-concept helped fix parts of his depression and anxiety.

Group Identity

This is the obvious one that we're all used to. Blake does Cross Fit, hangs out with cross fit people all the time, and loves telling people about all this. All of his Cross Fit buddies support each other and give each other praise for being part of such an awesome group. Someone calling Cross Fit stupid would feel like someone calling him and all of his friends stupid. It would be big and difficult change for Blake to get out of Cross Fit, given that's where most of his social circle is, and where all his free time goes.

Intelligent Social Web

Here's Val describing what he calls the Intelligent Social Web:

I suspect that improv works because we’re doing something a lot like it pretty much all the time. The web of social relationships we’re embedded in helps define our roles as it forms and includes us. And that same web, as the distributed “director” of the “scene”, guides us in what we do. A lot of (but not all) people get a strong hit of this when they go back to visit their family. If you move away and then make new friends and sort of become a new person (!), you might at first think this is just who you are now. But then you visit your parents… and suddenly you feel and act a lot like you did before you moved away. You might even try to hold onto this “new you” with them… and they might respond to what they see as strange behavior by trying to nudge you into acting “normal”: ignoring surprising things you say, changing the topic to something familiar, starting an old fight, etc.

This feels like another important facet of identity, one that doesn't just exist in your head, but in the heads of those around you.

Identity as a Strategy for meeting your needs

In middle school and high school I built up a very particular identity. I bet if you conversed with high school me, you wouldn't be able to pin me down to using any particular phrase, label, or group to identify myself as. And yet, there are ways of being you could have asked me to try that would have scared the shit out of me. Almost as if... my identity was under attack....

So new take, one I consider more productive. Reread Paul Grahams essay and replace every instance of "identity" with "main strategy to meet one's needs". Hmmmm, it's starting to click. If you've been a preacher for 40 years, and all you know is preaching, and most of your needs are met by your church community, an attack on the church is an attack on your livelihood and well-being.

I expect having your "identity" under attack to feel similar to being a hunter gatherer and watching the only river that you've known in your life drying up. Fear and Panic. What are you going to do know? Will you survive? Where are the good things in your life going to come from?

When you frame it like this, you can see how easily trying to KYIS could lead to stuff that just hurts you. If I only have one way of getting people to like me (say, being funny), I can't just suddenly decide not to care if people don't consider me funny. I can't just suddenly not care if people stop laughing at my jokes. Both of those events mean I no longer have a functional strategy to be liked.

A very concrete prediction of this type of thinking: someone will be clingy and protective over a part of their behavior to the degree that it is the sole source of meeting XYZ important needs.

KYIS is not actionable advice

The take away from Paul Graham is "don't let something become you identity". How do you do that? I thought it meant something like "Never self identity as a BLANK", to others or to yourself. Boom. Done. And yet, even though I never talked about being part of one group or another, I still went through life a decent chunk of life banking on "Be funny, act unflappable, be competent at the basic stuff" as the only/main strategy for meeting my needs.

The actionable advice might be something like, "slowly develop a multi-faceted confidence in your ability to handle what life throws at you, via actually improving and seeing results." That's waaaaaay harder to do than just not identifying with a group, but it does a better jump of pointing you in the direction that matters. I expect that when Paul Graham wrote that essay he already had a pretty strong confidence in his ability to meet his needs. From that vantage point, you can easily let go of identities, because they aren't your life lines.

There can be much more to identity than what I've laid out, but I think the redirect I've given is one that is a great first step for anyone dwelling on identity, or for anyone who head the KYIS advice and earnestly tried to implement it, yet found mysterious ways it wasn't working.

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14 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:20 AM

I've gone through keeping my identity small and come out the other side, so this might be an interesting nuance on it.

KYIS is important. I think of it in terms of attachment. It's important not to become attached to (or need, in your language) the identified with thing. That's the path down which motivated thinking, defensiveness, and general suffering lie.

However it's also import to project an identity. People get confused about how to interact with you if you don't fit cleanly into a role. To use a programming metaphor, projecting an identity is like documenting your API so people know what and how they can interact with you.

My own experience was that I made my identity so small and consequently projected so little identity that people didn't quite know what to make of me. I was getting labeled "eccentric" and "weird" a lot because I was confusing. So to help other people be less confused and improve my social interactions, I created a brand or identity to project outwards with my clothes, mannerism, etc. that is closely based on who I naturally am as a person but also plays into schema that other people have. The result is people have some clear sense of who I am, even though it's wrong, and it lets them interact with me in consistently positive ways, even if they aren't the maximally positive ways that would be possible if we spent the time to get to know each other deeply. I make my brand the closest Schelling point in in the identity space of schemas that people have, and things fall out smoothly from there.

Maybe not the approach everyone will want to take, but if you find it frustrating that everyone thinks you are weird and doesn't know how to interact with you in positive ways, consider showing some more identity to them (even if it's not the real thing!) so that they can "know" you better. If you're afraid to do that because it's not authentic, consider in what way "being authentic" is something you identify with!

The clear API point is a very useful one. It feels like the difference between "I need people to think I'm XYZ way or they won't like me" and "I'll provide people this simple XYZ way to think about me so that they can interact with me at all".

To add to your suggestion, and to speak to the imagined person who feels very of putting out an API-Identity, there are all sorts of ways you can phrase you communication to express "This is a public facing API, inquire inside if you're curious for more details."

I find this very true.

In fact, portraying a STRONGER identity often is met more easily results in better responses. The trick is that you can be strategic about it. By selecting between "personas" or "roles" you can select what kind of responses you want to get.

I find it helpful to think about the different situations I am in (work meetings, studying in cafes, meeting friends, etc.), and then think about "what is the most ideal response I could get" - and think about "what kind of person / action would provoke that kind of response?" Then, for the given situation make sure that everything is coherent - appearance, energy level, behaviors, speech cadence, etc.

Coherence is very powerful.

We already do this when we have a "work self" and a "home self". But for most of our activities it is not pre-planned. We just want to be "ourselves" - i.e. not have to strategically prepare for each situation.

As for "social identity theory" and feeling attacked, I don't think KYIS quite applies. When you are part of a tribe or subculture or whatever, there are several factors at play. (1) Defending the tribe may gain you status in the tribe. (2) Allowing attacks on fellow tribe-members to go unprovoked may put you personally at risk as well - thus the tribe makes it a value to protect fellow tribe-members.

KYIS may mean "don't join any tribes". Or more realistically - only feel kinship or trust toward those you personally know, not any abstract larger categories of people. Some would argue that this is how China used to work. However, as societies scale up in size, we typically do join social groups with abstract myths that bind people together, provide standards, and allow coordination among strangers.

Anyway, I guess it gets pretty complex as you unpack it. I suppose if you have skills that are in demand by many people, you do not need to be "married" to any one tribe, nation, or company. You can flit from one to the next if the current one falls. This may cause locals to mistrust you (e.g. the hatred for "globalists") which lowers your status locally, but if your skills are valuable enough, you won't mind too much.

So, the ultimate way to KYIS - be very valuable to many different groups of people. This may be from transferable skills, a great personality, or just a very strong and wide social network.

I've always preferred the advice to Keep Your Identity Meta. I'm not an X-believer, I'm a person who processes evidence in way Y.

Yes, that's still an identity, and it's still about a belief complex, but it's much more compatible with actually changing one's mind.

(Y = "with intellectual honesty no matter what" helped me to leave my religion in a principled fashion, even before I came across this community.)

Related: Identities are (Subconscious) strategies

Identities are Strategies towards Goals

Consider a person who prides themselves on their identity as a writer: “I am a writer.” This identity is precious because there is an implicit statement of the form “I am a writer[, and therefore I will have a job, income, status, friends, lovers, and my life will be good].” The implicit statement is the goal to be obtained and the explicit identity is the strategy for achieving that goal. The value of the identity derives from the goal is supports.

I describe these plans as subconscious because more often than not they are not articulated. Many people have an identity around being intelligent, but I expect that if you ask them why this important, they will need a few moments to generate their answer. I also expect that in many cases the belief in the goodness of an identity is absorbed from society and it is social drives which motivate it for an individual. In that case, the full identity statement might go “I am a __ [and therefore society will approve of me]” whether or not an individual would admit it. In the most general case, it’s “I am a __ [and therefore goodness].”

Threats to the Identity are Threats to the Goal

Given that an identity is a strategy for achieving a goal, any threat to the identity is a threat to the goal. The degree of threat perceived is proportional to the importance of the goal and to the extent that the identity is sole strategy for achieving the goal. If someone believes that being a writer is their sole avenue for having a good and fulfilling life, they are going to get upset when that identity is challenged. This holds even if person does not consciously recognize that their identity is part of a plan. It is enough that some part of their mind, S1 or whatever, has firmly stamped “being a writer” as critical for having a good life.

Consider, though, someone who has identities both around being a writer and around being a musician. Suppose that this person has achieved considerable fame and fortune as a musician and resultantly already has wealth, friends, lovers, etc. by dint of this identity alone. I predict that this person will be less bothered by challenges to writing ability than the person who staking themselves on being a writer. If the writer-only has their manuscript rejected, it will be devastating, whereas for the writer-musician, it will be a mere disappointment.

Protect the Goal and the Identity Can Be Free

If threats to identity are really about threats to goal-attainment, then the key to working with identities becomes a) surfacing the hidden goals and, b) ensuring there is security around attaining those goals. Tell the child that they’re not cut out to be writer and they’ll tantrum, but tell them they’re not cut to be a writer yet have phenomenal painting skills, and they might just listen. Substitute one less viable plan for a new and better one. Other variations include exposing that the goal in fact has already been attained, as in the case of the writer-musician above, or recognizing that the identity in fact is going to be an ineffective plan regardless, e.g. giving up on being a goth because you realize that no one thinks goths are cool anyway.

Compare also Richard, whose brain found it really important that "confident" not be a part of his identity.

Lol, this is the post I wanted to write but better. Thanks Kaj! To anyone who ended up here, go read Ruby's post.

To me KYIS is about group identity, not so much about personal identity. So the actionable advice would be "Does this particular part of your identity come from belonging to a group, wanting to belong to one? Then discard it."

I see having a group identity as part of meeting one's needs, albeit their social needs. So basically I still predict that the ease with which you can discard a particular group identity will be proportional to it's monopoly on meeting your social needs.

And then my follow up recommendation is something like, "Find another way to meet those needs before trying to throw away the identity, both for you sanity and to increase odds of success" (though I can imagine changing my tone on that based on particular circumstances)

Is your stance something like, "Regardless of the monopoly it has on meeting your needs, you should discard the group identity as soon as you can identify it, because group identities are just that corrosive"?

Why can't one meet the social needs by participating in groups without identifying with them?

I'm claiming that identity behaviors (verbally identifying as a member, consider your group membership important, wearing group style clothing or accessories, becoming less reasonable when your group is being criticized, etc) stem from a group having a monopoly on meeting your social needs, combined with insecurity and fear about the prospect of your needs no longer being met.

So yeah, I do think that you can get your social needs met by participating in groups without engaging in identity behavior (as you've suggested). I could be part of many different social circles and have lots of fulfilling relationships, and consider the stuff I do in each group important, and yet not engage much in identity behavior. I could also be a part of only one group.

I also agree that identity behavior can often be harmful. The main point I'm making is that (Fear about needs being met) -> (Identity behavior), and that if you only try to manage and tamp down Identity behavior, the pressures that created that behavior will still be present.

An example of (Fear about needs being met) -> (Identity behavior). You have only one friend group and it's a bunch of young graffiti artists. Someone argues with you that graffiti is harmful for the community. You fight vehemently to defend graffiti, because deep down you know that without graffiti, your group of friends wouldn't exist, and then you'd be alone.

If none of that jives, can you expand on what you're thinking about identity?

Looks like we are mostly on the same page. Your example is worth looking into a bit.

Someone argues with you that graffiti is harmful for the community. You fight vehemently to defend graffiti, because deep down you know that without graffiti, your group of friends wouldn't exist, and then you'd be alone

Right, if you identify as belonging to that group, you would feel that you have no choice but to defend it. If you were to consider the graffiti group as a place to socialize instead, then your reaction to someone attacking graffiti artists would still make you think that they are ignorant of the subculture and you would engage them without feeling endangered and getting defensive, which tends to be more productive. In this case your personal identity could be as in your description

"Be funny, act unflappable, be competent at the basic stuff"

or something similar that lets you pick and choose what groups you meet your social needs in without getting stuck in their world and having to bend your identity to fit into theirs.

I was really hoping you were going to provide an actionable version of "keep your tribal identity small"

For me, the most useful parts of the KYIS outlook were, meeting people with a fresh slate without saying "yes I'm one of those people", not feeling like you personally are being threatened when people criticise your group, not feeling that impulse to delude yourself and everyone around you into thinking the outgroup are monsters.

The issue is, I notice that we can only stay in this state of neutrality for so long. Eventually, we find our tribe, we develop an ideology (cluster of beliefs about how the world works and how to do good) that is simply too useful to step outside of, we become publicly associated with controversial projects. That will happen. If we don't learn how to move soundly in that fire we wont end up moving soundly at all.

I guess the actionable version is to develop transferable skills, abilities, wealth, or social capital that are highly valued by many different tribes.

Then you have the leverage to flit from one to the next, and not care about standing up for any particular tribe.

However, the game to acquire wealth, social capital, and valued skills is basically the game that we are all playing and has lots of competition. The only way to "opt out" is to join a local monopoly (i.e. a tribe). Also, in the real world, tribes often "loan us resources" to develop our skills, capital, etc. in exchange for "joining" the tribe.

I don't think that applies to the sense of tribe that I mean. When you find your tribe, the sense of tribe that I mean, you will realise that leaving it is not really an option that you ever could have had. It is simply what you are. It is simply the group of people who want for the world the same thing that you want for the world.

It can take a long time to find that tribe and to recognise it. It isn't lesswrong, it isn't EA. It's funny to think about how much of an ideological split there is between discounting neartermists and alignmentist longtermists, and how we can still be friends, if anyone started talking about why they're different (and why they're still friends) there would be a lot of discomfort, but for now we just act like it isn't there.