The more you define yourself by any one activity the more fragile you become. If that activity doesn’t go well—or when there is inevitable chaos or change—you lose a sense of who you are, which is a stressful and discombobulating experience.
The opposite is “self-complexity,” a term researchers use for having multiple components to your identity.
Self-complexity emerges from differentiation (developing various parts of your identity) and integration (how well those various parts fit together to form a cohesive whole).
Increasing your self-complexity makes you less scared to fail and more enduring, robust, and resilient. It’s one of the most important paradoxes I uncovered researching, reporting, and writing Master of Change: the key to a strong identity is to diversify your sense of self.
Identity Like a House
If you have a house with only a single room and that single room catches fire or floods, you are in trouble. You’ll have nowhere to go. But if you have a house with multiple rooms and one of them catches fire or floods, you can seek refuge in the other rooms while you deal with the chaos.
It’s helpful to think of identity like a house.
First and foremost, you want to have a solid foundation. These are your core values, the defining traits and qualities toward which you aspire. They make up your essential being.
On top of that foundation, it’s beneficial to have at least a few rooms. You don’t have to spend the same amount of time in each room; if you are striving for greatness in one room, you’ll inherently spend less time in the others. But you don’t want to neglect the other rooms so much that they get moldy and become uninhabitable.
The rooms in which you spend the most hours will change over time. You may decide to add new rooms to your house, or to overhaul and renovate old ones.
A big part of what makes a house easy to live in are the hallways and transitional spaces that connect the rooms. If the rooms feel out of place or disjointed, the experience of navigating the house can be jarring. But if you have smooth hallways, each distinct room becomes part of a cohesive whole.
In your identity house, the hallways are:
- The rituals and routines you use to transition from one part of your life to others.
- The stories you tell yourself about yourself that connect the rooms together.
In science speak, if you are differentiated (multiple rooms) and integrated (elegant hallways) then you attain self-complexity, which, as you read in opening, makes you more rugged and flexible amidst life’s inevitable ebbs and flows.
Building Your Own Identity House
We all wear many hats. Examples include: writer, spouse, athlete, parent, employee, artist, neighbor, entrepreneur, baker, creative.
Take an inventory of your own identities. Are there any upon which you are over-reliant for meaning and self-worth? What would it look like to diversify your sense of self?
Challenge yourself to integrate the various elements of your identity into a cohesive whole. This allows you to emphasize and deemphasize certain parts of your identity at different periods of time.
For example: there are times when I lean heavily into each of my main identities—father, husband, writer, coach, friend, athlete, and neighbor. I’ve learned that keeping all of these identities strong ensures that when things don’t go well in one area of my life I can rely on the others to pick me up, which helps me to stay grounded and navigate whatever challenge I am facing.
But What If I Want to Be Great?
If you want to be great at something you have to be willing to fail. Being willing to fail is easier when you have a strong sense of self. Having a strong sense of self requires not identifying too closely with any single activity, dimension, or pursuit.
Whether it’s winning an Olympic medal, publishing a bestselling book, achieving world-class surgical outcomes, starting a company, or making the C-suite—you’ve got to be all-in.
There is no way around it.
But you don’t have to be all-in all of the time.
One of the most devastating myths is that to be the best at something you need to only do that thing. The truth is that you need to do that thing a whole lot, and with great care and attention—but you still benefit from having other sources of meaning in your life, even if they only consume a small minority of your time and energy.
In the short-term, diversifying your sense of identity removes some pressure from the main thing. In the long-term, diversifying your sense of identity smoothes transitions, even if only just a bit. Taken together, cultivating multiple parts of your identity will make you a stronger, happier, healthier, higher-performing, and more textured person.
- The key to a strong identity is a paradox: diversify your sense of self.
- Increase self-complexity by cultivating multiple parts to your whole.
- Emphasize and deemphasize different parts of yourself during different seasons of life.
- The result is you become less scared to fail and and more prepared for inevitable change.
If you found this valuable and haven’t yet, read Master of Change. The entire book explores a construct called “rugged flexibility,” a gritty endurance and anti-fragility that helps you thrive over the long haul, of which the above idea is but one part.
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