How do we develop our identity? I subscribe to Hofstaedter’s theory . Paraphrased it’s like this:
As newborns we’re blissfully unaware of any distinction between ourselves and our surroundings. We identify those distinctions, by searching for the fundamental patterns that guide our reality.
We must learn the concept of limbs for example: that we can control our own hands, and that we can’t control other people’s hands. Soon we identify humans. From there maybe mom and dad.
We find ecstasy and disappointment through our various attempts at manipulating our environment. As we accumulate a store of patterns, we can combine them and form even more complex patterns.
Say a few years go by, and you’re playing with a toy. It breaks, so you peer over to investigate. Your mom sees this and says “You’re a born engineer”. A germ of a pattern begins to form. There’s of course you and born engineer. Perhaps your dad repeats this, a few more events go by, and you realize “I’m a born engineer”. One more pattern in the store.
Put all the patterns together, and you get you. I find Hofstaedter’s idea mathematically beautiful. You can define yourself as a recursive function:
You(T) = IntegrateExperience(You(T-1), Experience(T))
You(0) = YourInherentPersonality
Every experience reflects onto and evolves your brain, contributing to the tapestry of identity that is you.
Now, there’s a lot to split hairs about in this definition. For example, it doesn’t much allow for free will. I could waive this away, by the defense that
IntegrateExperience has so many dimensions that it amounts to free will. But, this essay isn’t really about Hofstaedter’s theory. It’s about one specific externality.
I want to put forth the idea that we define our sense of self largely by how other people interact with us.
Yes, for all intents and purposes there’s free will, and yes, your inherent disposition plays a big role, and yes, it’s complicated, but if you reflect on your own experience, I think you’ll agree that what other people think has played a large role in developing your identity.
Now, if that’s true, what are the downstream consequences?
As you get smarter, you no longer have to wait for others to give you direct hints at who you are. Instead, you can see what society values and chase after it.
It starts easy. Perhaps you see what people say about smart kids, and you want that identity. You strive to become a top student in your school. Then, you try to go to the best University. And from there, depending on your environment, you either join the best firm, or strike out on your own.
At each point, you’re inundated with pattern after pattern. For example, say you strike out on your own. You notice that the most ambitious people are working on climate change. So you mimic their airs and begin your journey to save the world. But a few months in, and now, all the talk is about wildfires in California. Before you have time to pivot, it’s all about remote first. Wait what about Web3, and don’t forget Machine Learning.
To make things worse, society’s pull isn’t uniform. With the macro pull (society), there are also just-as-strong micro pulls (individual). You could kick off your climate change journey for example, but your parents may think you’re wasting your time. Oops. If identity was what you were after, suddenly the plan loses it’s luster. Contending with different pulls that change every three months…even if you get everything right you’re on brittle foundations.
The story I painted for you is extreme. It’s easy to make fun of the hypothetical actor and remove ourselves from it. After all, our brains are very good at convincing ourselves that “Actually, pivoting into wildfires in California is exactly what I wanted to do from the start”. But apply some humility, and I think you’ll see parts of yourself.
Where does it all lead? Let the siren calls guide you, and you risk wasting away your life. Even if you win this game, you’ve lost. Who are you really if you have never formed an opinion that’s your own? If you flit and follow the tidal waves of society, can anyone really trust you? Can you even trust yourself?
I think we seldom wake up from siren calls like this until it’s too late. Maybe the “mid-life crisis” is such a moment for many. But even then, why does just about everyone collect sports cars and romantic flings? Just one more siren call of society.
If you’re like me, the idea that you’re part of the tidal wave makes you bristle with emotion. A life of ups and downs, at the whims of the opinion of the many. I don’t think I can think of anything more cowardly.
Yet, what is the alternative. Could you define your sense of self as separate from any interaction with the outside world? Can you really be uncaring for what other people think?
From all I can gather, I don’t think so. You are inexorably linked with your connections with others. To revolt against it is to revolt against your humanity, to become a malfunctioning robot.
But I don’t think hope is lost. The very fact that we bristle with emotion gives us a clue. If we can’t change the equation, perhaps we can use it to our advantage, as our compass.
The reason we bristle, I think, is that we have seen a path to a different kind of identity.
After all, we don’t tend to admire the person who flits between flowers. We admire the hero who is unwavering with their principles. The person who tells the truth even when it hurts. The person who lifts up and supports those around them.
Where do these ideas come from? These ideas too come from society, but from a much more timeless place.
Our world is fantastically multi-dimensional, and thanks to the power of words, our wisdom transcends time. In the same way that you can pick up the identity that you are a “Wealthy, Type-A achiever” from your Twitter personality du-jour, you can pick up the idea that you are “A person who never lies”, from the fiction of Rafael Sabatini, or a “someone who is unfazed by the whims of fortune” from the writings of Seneca.
And hence one of our points of most severe leverage. We must influence the
Experience that we feed our identity.
Society tends to drive us towards the superficial, but this is only true on average. Our world is filled with wisdom, with archetypes that demonstrates what truly matters. Values like honor, chivalry, righteousness, caring for the weak, sacrifice for the collective, are exemplified throughout the annals of history.
How do you know some of these “identities” are worth taking on? One clue is time. If you find yourself inspired by the behavior of someone in the 4th Century, they’re likely doing something right.
But you can’t just get lost in books. In the same way that you can learn to value Dom Perignon and clubbing, you can value calling your family and doing what’s right. Your choice of living heroes, and your choice of friendships, are an overwhelming factor.
When you see your friend devote a 3 hour call with their uncle, or craft a special birthday experience for a loved one, you put into perspective what matters and what doesn’t.
So, given the multi-dimensional nature of our reality, we can choose the Experiences that lead us to timeless identities. But, this is not enough. After all,
Experience is just input to
This, is where the real test lies. Learning that something is good, is different than doing what is good. Doing has a cost to it. Say you went through a tough experience: maybe you lost a bunch of money for example. How do you handle it? You’ve seen the examples of the heroes, but how will you behave?
Every difficult action done well, is proof towards a timeless identity. If you follow the logic of our
You function, you’re literally changing yourself by the action.
And really, what does the conclusion come to? We come to the idea, that a good life is forged from fundamental, timeless values: honor, erudition, and truth. To overcome the inertia of society, be careful about what you consume, choose your friends wisely, and train yourself to make the hard decisions when they come, for they are what transform you.
I think many a grandparent in my home country would tell you the same thing. Perhaps that is one further proof to the soundness of these principles — this idea itself is tested by time. I hope this essay serves as an inspiring
Experience(T) for you, as it has been for me in writing it 🙂
Thanks to Alex Reichert, Joe Averbukh, Jacky Wang for reviewing drafts of this essay.