You Don’t Need An Identity To Have A Life
Dressed in a brown, too large sweater, a man is standing in an archway, elbows crossed. It’s snowing. Having waited for hours in the cold, the bank across the street finally opens. He walks in.
Inside the Zurich Community Bank, he writes down a 13-digit number on a piece of paper, which the clerk hands to a more senior employee, who guides the man to an elevator. Down in the vault, a security guard silently gestures him towards the fingerprint identification system. He passes.
As he sits down in a dimly lit cabin, another clerk retrieves a metal lock box, roughly the size of two shoe cartons, from the bank’s walk-in safe. He places it in front of the man, unlocks it, nods, and walks away. After the man’s made sure the cabin curtain is closed, he opens the box.
There’s nothing unusual inside. A bunch of markers, a flashlight, contact lenses, a watch, a credit card, his vaccination record, a USB stick. His eyes quickly scan the contents, resting on one item almost instantly: his passport. He opens it and sits down in the small cabin chair.
After what feels like a lifetime, he nods, but his face is full of doubt. As if to make himself believe, he utters:
“My name is Jason Bourne.”
The Role Of His Life
In 1942, Howard Hughes Jr. set out to build the biggest plane in the history of mankind. At a wingspan of 320 ft (97 m), the length of half a Football field, and towering eight stories high, to this day it remains the largest aircraft ever flown. The name of the colossus reveals as much about the man behind it as does the endeavor itself: the Hughes H-4 Hercules would be her father’s ticket into the annals of history.
“I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.” — Howard Hughes Jr.
Even considering the already high stakes, Hughes still understated how invested he was into the project. Beyond his reputation, he had put something even more fragile on the line: his identity.
Born to Howard Sr. and Allene Stone Gano in 1905, the young man proved early to be nothing short of gifted. At eleven he built a radio transmitter, at twelve he constructed a motorcycle, and by his twenties, he played a handicap of three in golf. He would also turn out a brilliant pilot. However, none of that could prepare him for the adversity no child should have to face: losing both parents by age 19.
With almost prophetic vision, he used his inheritance to acquire the majority stock share of the business his father had founded, Hughes Tool Company. Thanks to the intellectual property it contained, this asset would make Hughes Jr. one of the world’s wealthiest men for the rest of his life. His father, while not as mechanically adept, helped pioneer and patent a drill bit for oil exploration. It used two cones, rotating against one another, which sped up drilling by a factor of up to ten.
In as tragic a story as only life can write, this one move both gave his son all the freedom in the world and forever bound him to the shackles of a restless self. Hughes Jr. quickly left his father’s business in more capable hands and went on a long string of ultimately unsuccessful careers as a filmmaker, stock trader, pilot, real estate investor, aircraft manufacturer, and defense contractor.
The Hughes H-4 Hercules was the pinnacle of his failures. Nicknamed the ‘Spruce Goose’ by critics for its wooden materials, it racked up a staggering $23 million bill, almost $300 million in today’s dollars. After five years of development, it only took a single test flight, during which Hughes jeopardized the entire operation, by spontaneously accelerating and forcing a takeoff. The plane did lift, but only for a mile and a mere 70 feet above the water. After that, it was locked away in hangars and later museums, accruing millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs.
And so it goes that Hughes’s Wikipedia page reads he was “known during his lifetime as one of the most financially successful individuals in the world.” Readers of Ryan Holiday’s Ego Is The Enemy, however, know better:
“Howard Hughes, like so many wealthy people, died in an asylum of his own making. He felt little joy. He enjoyed almost nothing of what he had. Most importantly, he wasted. He wasted so much talent, so much bravery, and so much energy.”
Howard Hughes Jr. withered away an entire lifetime pretending he was a genius inventor’s son, when that role was never really his to play. And we all do that. Playing characters we weren’t cast for.
For what it’s worth, Hughes was onto something with the title of his first of many failed movies: Everybody’s Acting.
Bourne runs his fingers along the edges of the iron case. His gut tells him there’s more. With a clicking noise, the inlay comes loose. What’s revealed underneath is beyond anything his passport could tell him. Horrified, he stares at a gun, another dozen or so passports, and what looks to be at least $100,000 cash, spread across a variety of currencies. Clearly, Jason Bourne is not an average citizen. But, having lost his memory, he has no idea why.
What’s most fascinating about the entire bank scene is that it manages to fill an eternity of five minutes of on-screen time with a mere nine lines of dialogue. It’s a thread that continues throughout the movie. The script is less than 7,500 words, whereas the average screenplay clocks in at almost twice that.
That’s because the story of Jason Bourne is the fictional equivalent of looking into a mirror for the first time in months: you don’t need words, you need context. Who’s that person? Why are they the way they are? Life is like that. We’re busy running around, checking items off lists, working towards some distant goal, and before we know it, we’ve changed beyond recognition.
Trying to make sense of ourselves, to shape a coherent picture, we each speak some 16,000 words a day, and oh, how we long for them to be definitive: “I’m bad at math,” “she’s pretty,” “he’s always been this way.” We’re tying up a parcel to then carry it around, like Bourne’s lock box. Or, as Naval Ravikant puts it:
“What we do is we accumulate all these habits. We put them in the bundle of identity, ego, ourselves, and then we get attached to that. I’m Shane. This is the way I am. I’m Naval. This is the way I am.”
It’s almost as if identity is antifragile. The heftier you shock the system, the harder the world pokes at the labels we so proudly sow on our souls, the more our identity crystallizes, refusing to change. The biases that cause this behavior are part of the human condition. Science confirms:
- Treating criticism as a threat to our identity prevents that we learn from it.
- When we believe our relational status will stay the same, we start assuming everyone else should have the same status, such as being single.
- We adjust our performance based on stereotypes, as long as we believe they’re true.
We are all Jason Bourne. We’ve played so many parts in so many movies that we’ve forgotten a whole bunch of them. And yet, they’re still there. Pieces of an incoherent puzzle. Every day, we build more towards assembling a self, chiseling an identity out of the marble, only to ultimately find we might not like what we’ve created.
Eventually, our roles will catch up to us. Especially if we let someone else write the script.
The Maze Inside Your Mind
Over the span of 14 years and five films, the Bourne movie series has been one of astronomic success, grossing over $1.6 billion. But if you draw a timeline of the full chronology and look at it closely, you’ll see the story ended after the first film. By the time the curtains close, Bourne knows who he is. Who he was. He then spends all subsequent movies trying to right yet another wrong someone else has dug up from his past. Always alive, but never truly living.
“Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.”
We construct this conceptual self next to our physical self to infuse meaning into our lives, whether there actually is some or not. The reason this unconscious play always works is that it defers the result to when no one can hold us accountable to it: the time after we die. Becker’s big takeaway is that all of civilization is in a giant rat race for legacy, a race no one can really win.
According to Bronnie Ware, palliative nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, this race for pleasing society, not living true to one’s self, but for what others expect, tops the list:
“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realization came too late. “It’s not like I wanted to live a grand life,” Grace explained in one of many conversations from her bed. […] “But I wanted to do things for me too and I just didn’t have the courage.””
Whether you’re trying to build the world’s biggest plane or vindicate your former self, a life in service of such heavy legacy is a gamble. Whatever conceptual self you manage to assemble, it may not last, nor be perceived in any way as what you set out to make it. We’re always told our potential is limited by some piece missing from the identity puzzle. Supposedly, we lack discipline, or courage, or integrity, or all of them. I don’t think that’s our biggest hindrance.
Our biggest limiter of potential is that we don’t use the power to reinvent ourselves in any given minute.
Like Actors On A Stage
In 1979, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer gathered a group of men over 70 and arranged a five-day retreat for them in an old New Hampshire monastery. The only catch? They had to live, speak, and act as if it was 1959. More than an elaborate play, this study was supposed to resemble actual time travel. Each participant wrote a short biography of their 1959-self, the house was designed in contemporary style, magazines, newspapers, and books of the time were collected, and no talk of anything post-1959 was allowed.
When the men returned, they were not the same. In her account of the event, Counterclockwise, Langer writes:
“We retested all participants and found that indeed, the mind has enormous control over the body. […] On many of the measures, the participants got “younger.” The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.”
When they changed their identity, basically at will, their biology followed. Isn’t that against anything common sense would have us believe? But it’s not only science that shows how powerful flipping the script can be. Real actors sometimes do it too. Like Jim Carrey.
When he was younger, he would visualize himself as a person of success in order to subconsciously steer his actions toward grand achievements. He once told Oprah about how he wrote himself a check for $10,000,000 and post-dated it five years, only to find out he would receive roughly this sum for his part in Dumb and Dumber, just before the deadline.
In recent years, however, he’s changed. Avoiding the spotlight, he’s picked up painting, directing, and often talks in riddles. When he does appear, he seems very present, but always enigmatic. What happened to him? In a 2017 interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, he helped us understand:
“I believe that I had to become a famous idea and get all the stuff that
people dream about and accomplish a bunch of things that look like success in
order to give up my attachment to those things.”
He then continues to explain that identity, like fame, money, or power, is nothing but a game:
“They’re all characters that I played. Including Jim Carrey, including Joel Barish, including any of those things. They’re all characters. Jim Carrey was a less intentional character, because I thought I was just building something that people would like, but it was a character. I played the guy that was free from concerns, so that people who watched me would be free from concern.
People talk about depression all the time. […] Depression is your body saying ‘fuck you, I don’t want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this this avatar that you’ve created in the world. It’s too much for me.’ A friend of mine who’s a spiritual teacher has a really good take on this. His name is Jeff Foster and he says that you should think of the word depressed as ‘deep rest.’ Deep. Rest. Your body needs to be depressed. It needs deep rest from the character that you’ve been trying to play.”
Right now, Jim Carrey is done playing the identity game. He knows he can pick it up whenever he wants and become whoever he wants. Like the men in the study, he’s not bound to the reality he lives in. He creates his own. But to do that, he doesn’t need to play a character:
“I have sadness and joy and elation and satisfaction and gratitude beyond belief, but all of it is weather. And it just spins around the planet.”
Nothing has happened to Jim Carrey. He has always taken himself apart and reassembled in new ways. The fact that we haven’t is what makes us feel weird about it.
Jim Carrey has, once again, happened to us. And now the ball is in our court.
The Most Dangerous Drug In The World
“You move, you die.”
As Bourne confronts his persecutor at gunpoint, he finally gets to ask the question he’s been dying to get answers to:
“Who am I?”
His former supervisor isn’t too happy about Bourne’s loss of memory.
“You’re U.S. government property! You’re a malfunctioning $30 million weapon! You’re a total goddamn catastrophe!”
What Bourne suspected all along, his worst fears, they all seem to come true. He’s an assassin. And not just any assassin.
“I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist.”
Suddenly, a flashback hits Bourne. He remembers. The location. The target. The reason for his failure. His ex-boss can tell. And then, something fascinating happens.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The second Bourne gets closure on his past identity, he abandons it, choosing his own side. Viewers jump in their seats. For the past two hours, they’ve watched Bourne at his best: being a chameleon with a fluid self, a man who can adapt to any circumstance. Through four languages, multiple break-ins, close quarters combat, wide range shooting, and a car chase, he’s proven situational awareness is his strength. And in that, you can’t afford to have a rusty identity.
Beggar or bellboy, detective or assassin, he must switch between these characters from one minute to the next. For him, it’s a matter of life and death. For us it may not be, but that’s what real antifragility looks like. In order for the system to grow from disorder, parts must be allowed to break, fast and often.
Out of all human ideas, identity might be the most overrated and, in fact, the most dangerous. It’s as addictive as other figurative drugs, like money, status, power, but you don’t have to get a hold of it first. It’s ever-present, already in your grasp, always on top of your mind.
And yet, every time you enter a room full of strangers, you get to reinvent yourself. You can choose to be fluid. Limitless. So much more than your passport. Use that power.
Like the man in an overly large shirt, who walks into a tiny scooter store in Greece, and, when asked if he has ID, only shrugs and says: