A Healthy Me for a Healthy We

The unlikely story of how an application to the CIA led to a Himalayan monastery and a PhD in identity research… and what I’ve learned along the way about how to be a better leader.

Shirah Foy
Oct 29, 2018 · 7 min read

This talk was presented at Q Commons Geneva on October 26, 2018.

About 8 years ago I found myself at a crossroads in my career. My passion for languages and the chameleon game that I love to play — learning to blend into totally new surroundings as quickly as possible — had led me to a place where I was encouraged to join the intelligence community, a group of agencies that support US national security. As I began the lengthy application process to one of the agencies, one of the things I was asked to do was to respond to the statement: “All people are basically the same.”

How would you approach that? Biologically? Cognitively? Culturally?

I’m standing here today as a researcher and not a spy, because I abandoned that application process, and instead, I ran with this writing prompt. It continues to inspire my work today.

In fact, three months after I shredded my CIA application, I moved to the Himalaya to teach English in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.

Pema Chholing Monastery, June 2012

Are these 4 people basically the same?

You could argue both yes, and no, depending on how you look at it. Let’s use a theory from social psychology to help break it down.

Social identity theory suggests that there are three basic ways of seeing ourselves in relation to others. You can think about it as three concentric circles. In the first ring, you have the most individualized view of yourself. You see yourself as different from all other humans on the planet. In the second ring, you see yourself as a member of a community or social group; you have a sense of belonging with others based on relationships with them around shared values or interests. And in the third ring, you identify with a social group so big you can’t possibly know everyone. But still, you share an identity around something that brings you together — like your nationality, or your faith.

Figure adapted from Brewer & Gardner (1996).

Each of these ways of seeing yourself allow you to feel belonging, or feel unique, based on how and when you use them.

When I left to the Himalaya, I went with a perspective of myself in the third ring; I saw myself as a person just like them, looking for wisdom, connection, good food, and joy. And out of that came a motivation to share a gift I’ve been given — access to information through the tool of language — with anyone and everyone. But once I settled into the monastery and began to build relationships, my motivation was no longer to help an abstract people group — I began to see myself as a member of the community and I was motivated to get up each morning and prepare lessons for a group of young boys I was growing to love and whose future I cared about.

So you see, our perspective of who we are drives our motivations, which then guide our actions. Now think about yourself in your own work context. Out of which ring do you tend to operate? You probably have the habit of seeing yourself in one or maybe two rings. But we all identify with groups at various levels, and we have the possibility of seeing ourselves in different ways in relation to others.

icons: see by ProSymbols; lightbulb by Davo Sime; charity by Roberto Chiaveri — all from the Noun Project

I find it helpful to think of my identity as a deck of cards. Pretend that the suit of diamonds represents who we are in our workplace. Your Ace of diamonds is you as an individual with all the unique skills and characteristics that make you the only one who could do your job like you do. Your 2 of diamonds is you as a member of your working group or team. Your 7 of diamonds is you as a member of your organization, possibly more than a thousand people, but all working together under one name. And your Jack of diamonds represents you as web developer; it’s the kind of identification that comes out when you’re at you’re at your kids’ football game, chatting with the other parents who are web developers and commiserating about the shared challenges you face at work. Each of these ways of seeing yourself allow you to feel belonging, or feel unique, based on how and when you use them.

image “card deck” via Jack Hamilton on unsplash

Because what each individual needs to find is a balance of being the same, and being different.

It’s called optimal distinctiveness.

Figure adapted from Brewer (1991).

Maybe you’re here tonight and you feel lost in the crowd; you’ve tried so hard to fit into a group and fulfill that need for belonging, that you feel you’ve lost yourself — you can’t tell yourself apart from the group. Or maybe you feel so different from others that you have a hard time fitting in; maybe you’re trying to connect to a group but you just can’t find anything in common. I’m here to tell you two things: Number 1. There is no human on this planet that you don’t share SOMETHING in common with. And if I can become a member of a community of salty-yak-milk-butter-tea drinking monks who believe that we live on one of 4 earths revolving around a jade pole in the center of the universe… then I’m confident that you can find something in common with the community that you are trying to reach. Number 2. Belonging is good. but in addition to identifying with others, you have a legitimate psychological need to be uniquely yourself. You were uniquely and fearfully and wonderfully made. And it is not necessarily selfish, or egotistical, or prideful to invest in discovering and developing your individual identity.

Maybe this graph doesn’t get you very excited, but I can guarantee you that when you find the balance of being the same and different, you feel both free and supported; independent but not alone.

And now we get to the title of this talk: A Healthy Me for a Healthy We.

The healthy me is the me that can step back, take an inventory of all the ways I see myself, choose the ones that serve me best in a given situation — for example, the one that allows me to have empathy with the person in front of me. The healthy me, as a leader, is the one that recognizes and affirms the people around me as both belonging to my group, and also being uniquely themselves.

When you find the balance of being the same and different, you feel both free and supported; independent but not alone.

Pema Chholing Monastery, August 2012

I want to finish by returning to that original provocative statement: All people are basically the same. Here you see that one of these is not like the others. You might be tempted to think that the blonde girl — me in this case — is more unique than the others. But that’s just superficial. When you zoom in to the first ring, you see that each of these individuals are equally unique. But here’s the beautiful paradox: come over here to the third ring, and you can begin to argue, on a different level, that we are all the same.

image: community by rob bye on unsplash


Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167291175001

Brewer, M. B., & Gardner, W. (1996). Who is this “We”? Levels of collective identity and self representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(1), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.71.1.83

No Journey Wasted

Exploring ways of seeing the world, through encounters with people & places, and semi-philosophical ponderings.

Shirah Foy

Written by

Encourager. Explorer. Perspectivist. Researching entrepreneurship & identity @EPFL and across the globe.

No Journey Wasted

Exploring ways of seeing the world, through encounters with people & places, and semi-philosophical ponderings.

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