Who are you?

The subject of Identity is an intimidating one to broach, not the least of all due to the philosophical and psychological connotations of the word. I think though, the concept that I’m looking to discuss today is the layman’s idea of identity — as Wikipedia describes it, “Sense of who one is.”

I’ll pose the question to you: who are you? When faced with such a blunt question, how do you respond? What thoughts come to mind to express your identity to a stranger? Usually, we default to the basics: our jobs, where we live, our relationship status, etc. But what if these common descriptors of identity in today’s world all change? Have we lost or changed our identity?

A few months ago, I faced this very scenario. I switched both my career and city of residence in a relatively short period of time. Instead of “working in entertainment in Los Angeles,” I was now “working in venture capital in San Francisco.” At the age of 27, I was in a new place (that I knew very little about) and in a new job (which I knew very little about), feeling like a little bit of an impostor. At the same time, I no longer had the local group of close friends who knew me best that I had built up in LA over six years. It felt a bit like starting from scratch.

In today’s social media entrenched world, we constantly try to define our identities in 160 character “bios” and “profiles” on various social networks (side note: LinkedIn profiles written in the 3rd person are a personal pet peeve).

There’s a multitude of ways we may frame our sense of self, from physical (age, height, weight, abnormalities), to group affiliations (nationalities, religious beliefs, political affiliations), self-concept of our personality traits (intelligent, funny, empathetic), beliefs (morals, values, thoughts, purpose in life), profession (career, wealth, achievements), hobbies, and comparisons to others.

To be sure, we change and evolve in most of the categories above throughout life. I wouldn’t want to continue to identify exactly the same as myself at 18 years old (Facebook’s “You have memories on this day” feature reminds me of this on a daily basis). So if we’re constantly growing and changing, what’s safest for us to tie our sense of self to?

One dimension I’d rule out immediately is the physical. The luckiest of us will live long enough lives to get very old, and suffer the ensuing ailments and physical deterioration that accompanies age. If your identity is heavily tied to beauty or age, you’re setting yourself up for declining self-esteem. Professionals who find success early and identify as “young” within the ranks of their field may become depressed once they’re no longer “young” and others their age have “caught up.”

Group affiliations, while they may provide us with a feeling of safety, security, and community, are a similarly troubling way of identifying who you are. For one thing, group affiliations setup an “us versus them” dynamic which may put you at odds with people outside of your group, even if they don’t know you personally. This is especially evident with political affiliations, but extends to nearly every type of group. Further, any and every member of said group now has the power to define you with their words and actions. Extremists with the same affiliation shape people’s opinions of said affiliation, and can even co-opt the group’s identity for their own purposes. It’s risky to let others define you based on a label that you may have a different definition of.

Since life isn’t a horoscope or dating app (thank goodness) — let’s also ditch the vague positive personality traits that we all believe we have, e.g. “smart,” “funny,” “caring.” These descriptors are all relative to the rest of humanity, and frankly, are dependent on the observations and opinions of others (although I do know plenty of people who think they’re funny despite any outside validation… myself included). Your sense of self should not be delicate enough to depend on pleasing other people. Similarly, comparing ourselves to other people is an exercise in disappointment. Jeff Bezos may be the wealthiest man in the world, but he’s not the most attractive (okay, subjective… but still…). If we compare ourselves to others, there will always be room for “improvement” in some sense or another. Grass → Greener.

This next one may be a bit controversial, especially in Silicon Valley — but I’ve written about it before: tying our identities to our careers and achievements may lead to disappointment. Professional fortunes can change quickly, and if your sense of self is attached to your job, you risk feeling lost and unconfident when change occurs — which is often when we need confidence and reassurance the most. Additionally, identifying ourselves first and foremost by our careers encourages us to pursue further professional success and recognition at the expense of other domains in our life, such as relationships and hobbies. As I wrote about in my first ever blog post, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” is one of the top five regrets of the terminally ill. If we are what we do, we’ll always need to do more and achieve more to maintain our self-esteem.

So, what does that leave us with to define our sense of self? Here’s what I think is safe: morals, values, purpose, hobbies, family, and genuine friends. These domains in our lives have three key distinctions: 1) they’re chosen by us and do not rely on outside validation or influence; 2) they generally don’t change drastically in short periods of time or with a single event; and 3) they are absolutely free and require no material wealth or social status. Throughout life’s various ups and downs — winning the lottery or losing a job; getting in shape or becoming impaired; being complimented or insulted — these elements remain relatively consistent.

I’m not proposing that you change your LinkedIn and Twitter bios to be lists of your friends and morals, but I do believe that internalizing these elements of your life as the core of who you are can lead to confidence, security, and contentment. Ultimately, having a secure sense of self that doesn’t rely on external factors liberates us to explore and experiment in our lives, embracing change while remaining confident in who we are.

So I’ll ask again: who are you?

If you enjoyed this, please check out some of my previous posts: How Binge Watching Doomed Comedy; The Cameras are Coming; and I deleted every app from my phone for 30 days. Here’s what happened.

I’m currently an investor at Sinai Ventures in San Francisco. I previously worked in digital TV strategy at 21st Century Fox in Los Angeles. Northwestern Alum. Chicago Native. Feel free to reach out here, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.