We are not who we think we are

Presented at Velocity NY 2015. About 2/3rds of the way through, I lost my way. But it seemed to work anyway. What I attempted to do was to put the subtext on the slides while I was presenting the overt part.

Originally published here.

Let’s talk about the epistemology of the self.

We, as human beings with human brains and human mechanisms, build models. It’s how we understand the world. Our models influence what we perceive, how we grasp it, and what we can make of those interactions with the world. They are the boundaries beyond which we’re simply unable to grasp what we encounter (and frequently reject), the basis of all bias, why we fail to understand each other.

We take the world and divide it up into neat little categories, according to our models, that seam whole and complete and seamless, with hard black and white boundaries. These categories make it easier to understand and deal with the multivariate complexity of the world. They make it easier to scale our brains.

BLACK AMERICAN EUROPEAN GEEK MALE FEMALE TRANS HOMOSEXUAL DESIGNER LESBIAN BI ASIAN CREATIVE NERD WHITE ANALYTICAL INTP ENFJ NERD HISPANIC WASP FOB ABCD CONSERVATIVE GOTH LIBERAL RAVER AD NAUSEUM

And we do this to ourselves. I am a set of labels and categories and group memberships. These are a kind of index, that helps me place myself in the world, in my model of the world, relative to everything else. It gives me a comforting feeling. It’s the comforting story I tell myself about who and what I am. A kind of self-myth.

FIRST GENERATION SON OF IMMIGRANTS FIRST TO GO TO COLLEGE INTROVERTED SOCIALLY AWKWARD HUSBAND STEP-FATHER STEP-SON FISCALLY CONSERVATIVE SOCIALLY LIBERAL CYNICAL REALIST CLOSET OPTIMIST ADAPTABLE INDEPENDENT GROWN ASS MAN LOVING SUPPORTIVE EMPATHY-ABLE ONE OF THE SMARTER PEOPLE IN ANY ROOM CAN UNDERSTAND ANY TECHNICAL THING SPECIAL STRONG WILLED

It’s a useful and important myth. Without the self-model, we’d have no way of understanding anything. It’s the ultimate frame of reference. Without it, you wouldn’t know how far to move your fingers to hit the keys or how to communicate with anyone.

And it’s built on truths — I am all those labels. They’re just not necessarily complete or accurate. The messy, less clear cut bits that get abstracted away by the model inevitably make themselves known in ways we can’t even see most of the time.

GREW UP FATHERLESS -> TRUST ISSUES
GREW UP POOR -> FINANCIAL INSECURITY AND NEUROSIS

It’s not just that there are things below the surface that we don’t know about each other. It’s that there are things below the surface we don’t even know about ourselves. They come out in our assumptions, our biases, our automatized behaviors.

EMPATHY IS NOT TO BE EXPECTED, SO DON’T HAVE ANY
SUPPORT WILL NOT BE GIVEN, SO DON’T GIVE ANY
YOU ARE AN OUTSIDER, SO MAKE OUTSIDERS OF OTHERS

Other people don’t really see you; they see what you present. You can’t really see yourself; you only see what you present to yourself.

EXTERNAL: CONFIDENT AND COMPETENT HIGH ACHIEVER
INTERNAL: UNDERDOG AND PERENNIAL OUTSIDER
UNDERNEATH: DESPERATE FOR ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

People go to extreme lengths to preserve the external identities they present to the world. We can go to similarly extreme lengths to preserve the internal identities we present to ourselves, to not be faced with the gaps between who and what we think we are and who and what we actually do.

Think about what happens when someone points out something you say or do that doesn’t fit with your self-model. What do you do? I tend to dismiss it, explain it away, deny it — even completely fail to see it, blinded by my own myth. Our deep need to rationalize who we believe ourselves to be with what we actually end up doing leads us to covering up the reality of what we are.

LOGICAL, SO DON’T DEAL WITH EMOTIONS
GOOD INTENTIONS, SO DON’T CONSIDER CONSEQUENCES
OPEN MINDED, SO DON’T CREATE DIVERSITY

That reality is exactly what needs to change when need to understand something new, when we need to see things differently, when we need to do and be different. It’s not enough just to change categories and labels. And to change the reality means to first see it, acknowledge it, and accept the fact of it.

Like holding strong opinions weakly to be open to new ideas, maybe we should hold strong identities weakly.

Instead of valuing who we are, we should value what we do.

Because we are not who we think we are, but we can’t help becoming what we do.

Maybe we can take our self-labels, self-categorizations, self-models, and self-myths — with a grain of salt. Maybe we can unmake ourselves, in order to remake ourselves. Models can be taken apart and new models built out of the pieces. A kind of dialectic of the self.

INSECURE AND FATHERLESS -> CONFIDENT THROUGH FATHERHOOD

What would happen if you unmade yourself?


This presentation was built out of the pieces of other presentations given over the past year: