Identity power energy
It is very hard to think clearly about things that affect our identity. We want things that benefit our identity to be true, and those that are not to be false.
When our identity is at stake, instead of trying to figure out if the idea is true or not, we search for reasons to accept ideas that support it and reject reasons that threaten it, and we do that to the detriment of ourselves.
Yet strong identities are not all bad: in practice, they can be useful in that they make it very easy to act with vigor when at stake.
Tying ourselves to a personal narrative helps us motivate ourselves and get others to join our cause; it gives us a place in the world and a community to belong.
Identity power energy ™ can take the form of online trolls or other unproductive and even destructive behavior, but when pointed in the right direction, big identities can be really productive. Think of people like Gandhi and Harvey Milk, or Buffet and Musk, and how tying themselves to a particular personal narrative propelled them forward.
There are a couple of interesting ways to manage this tension in our identity:
Paul Saffo’s maxim “strong opinions, weakly held” gives a way to let our beliefs get
in and out of our identity without so much trouble: it is a form of big, but flexible identity.
The idea is to make a forecast or form an opinion with whatever data is available, and then correct it as new information comes in. This is a very popular model, especially in the tech industry ever since Jeff Bezos calls it the number one sign of high intelligence.
Yet strong opinions weakly held have a couple of weak flanks.
For one, it is often a cover for bad decisions. Meaning, it is not used as a way to make decisions or form opinions, but as a way to explain why something did not work, independent of how the decision or opinion came to be.
It is also very tricky to put into practice. You want strong convictions but not too strong, otherwise, they become too hard to move. Identities are reinforcing, so the stronger the opinion, the harder it will be to let go.
Identities get fortified when attacked or when they become a source of pride. The stronger our convictions, the more open they become to attack or praise, and as a result the more likely they are to become solidified.
Another proposal is to try and keep our identity as small as possible. Paul Graham writes: “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let a few things into your identity as possible”.
But keeping our identity as minimal as possible seems only part of the solution because we wouldn’t want to sacrifice all that identity_ power energy_ ™ and what it can help us achieve.
Julia Grief advocates for having a Scout Mindset, which she defines as the “motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were. Scout mindset is what allows you to recognize when you are wrong, to seek out your blind spots, to test your assumptions and change course.”
This can serve as a type of identity: you think of yourself as someone who is intellectually honest, someone who takes pride in holding probabilistic opinions, and who is ok changing your mind.
Instead of saying “strong opinions weakly held” Grief seems to say: some opinions you hold strongly and some weakly, and upon new evidence, these can change. Less catchy, but likely better.
Compared with the minimal identity proposed by PG, Grief suggests a “light identity”. If you power your identity with the scout mindset, you will get the flexibility of a small PG identity without losing the benefits of an expansive identity: you can belong to a community (think the rationalist or the effective altruism communities), build a personal narrative as a truth seeker, and get the identity energy when your values are threatened or when you have pride in who you are: It’s like clean nuclear energy for your identity.
I really like Grief’s proposal, and many of the tips and tricks she shared in her book to keep yourself intellectually honest.
But maybe the idea of a well-defined identity is in itself a bit overextended. We are never exactly identical to ourselves, other than, as Brouillard points out, when we sleep or when we die. Not even what we say is ever identical to what we want to say. Our words never fully signify the meaning we intend for them.
And given that our own words escape our desired meanings, how are we to assume we fully know who someone else is - be that someone who shares our identity or someone who opposes it - if even their words escape their desired meaning as well?
The search for truth and precision will take us a long way in getting clarity within ourselves and the world around us, but what do we to do with the gaps that remain a mystery?
This question is relevant since many of the people that matter a great deal to us (our family, neighbors, etc) are likely not sharing our identity. We might not be able to understand them or them understand us.
So perhaps we should think of our identities as tools, an engine or booster that can help us achieve a certain goal faster. I personally like the identity of intellectual honesty or a scout mindset.
But sometimes this tool is not useful. Sometimes, we don’t know what we feel or we are still forming an opinion, or we can’t really tell what other people think or how they react to what we say. At those times, we should probably leave space for the mystery of what gets lost between words and meaning, both in our own selves and most importantly in our understanding of other people.
That mystery is a totally different type of energy, but also a very fruitful and powerful one.