“No Identity”

Tiffany Tseng
Jan 24 · 3 min read

A recent realization I’ve had is how easily many people, myself included, disqualify themselves before they’re even considered.

By disqualification, I mean that many people, particularly minorities, see themselves as other and thus do not necessarily feel they deserve certain rights or experiences.

One example is qualifying for an application. I’ve often found myself feeling that I am not qualified, or even that other people deserve opportunities over me, because I am unsure whether it’s a good fit or if I’ve wanted it enough.

When I applied to college, for example, I often felt guilty about my admission to certain hallowed institutions. It was easy to think that other people, who have dreamed of going to [elite college] their entire life, deserved to go over me, when I didn’t even consider applying to MIT, for example, until my junior year of high school. It’s also easy to get trapped in the affirmative action track where you feel like you don’t actually qualify as a candidate and have been considered in a separate pool because of attributes you had no control over (e.g., your race).

This feeling of otherness has creeped into many other aspects of my life, largely around my own identity. Do I even qualify as a “programmer” when other people have been programming since their childhood? Am I designer, when I don’t have a formal degree in design and almost all my experience comes from side projects (designing posters, icons, etc.)? Do I even deserve to be considered for faculty positions when other people, who have been striving for best papers, gone through years of being a postdoc, and have checked all the traditional boxes of academics all-star are in the same pool?

My solution up to this point has been to defy any sort of identity — as an engineer, designer, or researcher. I have never taken a job or made a professional decision based on a title, but more based on the work I’d get to do, the projects I’d contribute to, and the people I’d work with. This has been both good and bad — I’ve made up jobs that give me the freedom to work across disciplines, but it’s also been hard when people ask me basic professional questions, like “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” or “What would your ideal promotion timeline look like?”

There are a few ideas I’ve come to appreciate in the past year that have helped me handle these uncertainties.

First, many people that are confident about their life trajectory are given opportunities for their self-identity to solidify that most people do not have. For example, many people I know that are academics have parents or other familial role models that give them early access to basic information about what that professional path looks like. Or, they have parents that are programmers that introduced them to computers before normal people even had access to them (e.g., Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.). There are deep privileges that go hand-in-hand with professional confidence and self-identity, which are by their very nature exclusionary.

Second, sometimes people with confidence are actually blindly unaware (not necessarily in an insidious way). I felt this very much during my time in San Francisco or Silicon Valley more generally, where people approach problems from an idyllic perspective, without being aware of potential consequences.

Third, it’s worth considering why these narrow outlooks on careers and professions exist, and whether they should. Some of the reasons why job titles or degrees exist is largely administrative:

A “renaissance man” is one that is not easily boxed into a single path (think da Vinci), a generalist over a specialist. Our modern society seems to have diverged from supporting generalists in favor of specialized degrees and roles. I was very inspired by Bret Victor’s talk on Inventing on Principle, where he addresses this exact conflict (at around 34:00).

Ultimately, what I’ve come to appreciate is that my sense of “no identity” is actually multiple identities, and that that’s ok. Further, it’s easy to conflate conviction with qualifications —a lack of confidence is not in and of itself a disqualification. And that, actually, being unsure of things is often a sign of thinking more critically and deeply about what it means to choose a path, beyond a job title or the prestige that comes with it.

    Tiffany Tseng

    Written by

    designing tools for making.

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