Like most writers, I struggle with powerful internal demons that together constitute what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance—a malevolent, almost tangible force that resists our most noble and heroic efforts to rise to our fullest potential. Resistance paralyzes us with senses of fear and inability. Every good piece I have ever written only emerged after a difficult inner battle.
One source of struggle is the overwhelming pressure to brand oneself. One definition of personal branding reads:
The conscious and intentional effort to create and influence public perception of an individual by positioning them as an authority in their industry, elevating their credibility, and differentiating themselves from the competition, to ultimately advance their career, increase their circle of influence, and have a larger impact.
In other words, branding is how we communicate and present our value to the world. One of the first questions we encounter at cocktail parties is, “What do you do?” Each of us is obligated to have a ready answer. We usually encounter this concept in a professional context, but the world constantly asks to name our identity in a wide variety of other contexts.
I have always struggled to name my identity, and I grow less certain with each passing year. I have been extremely fortunate to have had a rich variety of experiences in my life. Officially, I am an Air Force officer and cargo pilot who no longer flies. I know Arabic and am a Middle East Foreign Area Officer, but have never worked a FAO job. I am an entrepreneur who founded two drone-related startups. I am a Political Scientist currently working as a professor. I am also, less officially, a writer of science fiction, fantasy, memoir, defense innovation pieces, and blog posts loosely aimed at helping leaders find a place of wholeheartedness from which to lead. I enjoy this rich complexity but also feel spread thin.
The pressure to name my identity is a constant source of anxiety. As I put together this website, questions of identity felt increasingly urgent. Do I use my own name as a web domain, or pick a catchy topic-specific name that is likely to drive more traffic? Do I create separate websites for each aspect of my life, or somehow integrate them into a single website? How do I write about diverse interests without alienating the majority of readers drawn by just one topic? Do I throw everyone on one mailing list or maintain multiple topical mailing lists? How do I present myself on a CV?
Lost in all this anxious thrash is the joyful magic of creation. Following my heart, writing what sings to me on any given day, never feels like enough. It must fit a strategy, fit a brand, avoid confusing my readers by straying too far from their expectations. Why the hell is a military officer quoting poetry and writing about inner journeys? And if he wants to write about inner journeys, why he is suddenly writing about social science or coding? I sit before the blank page, wheels spinning, stressing about identity management and market position rather than doing the thing I truly love: creating.
I share all this not to navel-gaze, but because I suspect I am not the only person who feels this way. Not everyone is a writer. Not everyone has the diversity of professional identities I have cycled through. However, each of us is a complex and multi-dimensional person with wide-ranging interests and a sense of self that bristles at being put in a box.
The pressure to name our identity
Why do we feel so much pressure to name our identities?
One class of incentives is economic. Strong economies are built on specialization and exchange, and we live in a time when the sheer range of possible specializations boggles the mind. Our distant ancestors might have specialized in hunting mammoths or picking fruit, but today a front-end web developer frets over which technology stack to specialize in. Most academics build successful careers by specializing in tiny slivers of human knowledge.
Freelancers might not be constrained by organizations, but they arguably face an even tougher problem: economic incentives to brand their own personal identity. It is not enough in today’s world to be a wise, emotionally intelligent, multi-dimensional thinker with a range of skills and experiences. The winners in the modern economy can state the value proposition of their professional lives in a sentence. Specialization sells. A blog entirely devoted to YouTube search engine optimization will probably outcompete a personal blog maintained by a polymath with diverse interests.
Social incentives also drive us to name identities. The human mind will do almost anything to avoid complexity, which is cognitively demanding and emotionally draining. Identities bundle complexity into digestible nuggets. They become shorthands for entire worldviews, which allows us to bin people into a comprehensible framework with almost no contextual knowledge. Social identities become in-group and out-group markers that allow rapid sorting of communities and relations.
Perhaps the deepest incentives to name identities lie within. We desperately want to know who we are. Most of us don’t. In our formative years we live out identities handed down from authority figures or culture. As we grow older, we experiment with alternative identities and begin to learn who we really are. Around midlife, we shed worn-out identities and grow into new ones. The ambiguity of these seasons can be disorienting and even painful. We are uncertain how to live in the world when we cannot even live comfortably within our own skin. Identity markers–even someone else’s identity markers–anchor us and promise to settle our uncertainty.
Crises of identity
Although these pressures to name our identities are inevitable and perhaps even necessary, they can lead to a number of stresses that challenge our full humanity.
First, the human soul yearns for spaciousness and freedom. Each of us is a multidimensional being, far too complex to pin down with mere labels. Identities reduce us, constrain us, hammer us into containers too small for the welling abundance within. Each choice we make about presentation seems to foreclose other opportunities. Establishing our presence in the world becomes a zero-sum game, in which we constantly worry over identity decisions and the opportunity cost of paths not taken.
Second, naming identities works against the magic of synthesis. Each of us wears multiple identities, and these identities can interact in challenging and sometimes profound ways. In the corporate world, Americans long drew a boundary between professional and personal identities. The collapse of that boundary has opened up a creative, engaging, and important space in which we can discuss emotional intelligence, empathy, wholeheartedness, and meaning in the context of work. Many scientific breakthroughs occur when scholars make lonely, uncertain expeditions into other disciplines to discover connections. One reason I love fiction is that it encourages an expansive way of understanding the world, drawing liberally from the human experience, history, knowledge, and imagination.
The pressure to name a narrow identity works against this ongoing process of creative synthesis. It pressures us into conformity—into cultural norms, genre tropes, the conventions of particular scientific disciplines, established ways of living and being. Living across identities requires intentionality, energy, and courage. It often means being misunderstood and alienated. Scientists, artists, and other creatives who work across identities often struggle to find the acceptance that they so earnestly seek.
Third, identities are malleable and highly uncertain to change. We marry and divorce. We undergo religious conversions and transformations. We experience job changes, sometimes radical ones. Old interests fade and new interests arise. A well-lived life involves a constant process of growth. Fixed identities curtail that freedom, creating drag on our ability to grow and change.
Identity transformations can thus become lonely and dangerous experiences. Religious transformations, although sometimes sorely needed, can feel like relational suicide. Scholars who want to change disciplines do so at the risk of their careers. Authors trying to cross genre lines sometimes write under pen names, deliberately fragmenting their identities in order to sell their work.
Fourth, shorthand identity markers are simplifications at best and outright lies at the worst. Consider how much baggage is packaged in a label like Democrat or Republican or Christian or Atheist, a slogan like “Black Lives Matter” or “science is real”, a genre like Science Fiction or Romance. When we tag ourselves—or others—with such a shorthand, we invoke a long and encumbered history, which might only loosely represent a unique individual. To the degree that our private beliefs differ from that prefabricated identity, we can feel great personal stress, pressuring us to drive our private beliefs into conformity, suppress them, or shed the identity entirely.
Holding identity in tension
Although I do not have easy answers for managing complex identities, here are a few principles. They all involve a creative tension between personal wholeness and the practical needs to mark identity.
Become conscious of the forces constraining identity. Understanding these forces is half the battle. It allows us to engage intentionally and deliberately with identity management, rather than being swept along by unconscious forces that constrain us.
Recognize there is no perfect answer to identity management. There are only tradeoffs. One website or three? Pen names or not? Different CVs for different communities? Religious label or not? All we can do is bring our best judgment to bear, make decisions, and move ahead. Stalling rarely helps.
Remember that you are more than your presentation to the world. Wholeheartedness demands fluidity, integration, expansiveness. Even if the world requires us to brand ourselves in particular ways, we must retain that wholehearted sense of integration within. We must not confuse our tactical presentation with the full breadth of who we are as individuals. We need spaces in our lives where we can unfurl our whole selves across the canvas, whether that is in our relationships, journals, arts, or somewhere else.
Know that resisting identity pinning requires a countercultural commitment. Not everyone will make this choice, but those who do should be clear-eyed about the implications. It will likely mean difficulties with all the things that branding is designed to solve, such as sales, quick connections with existing communities, or even understanding. It will mean a higher expenditure of energy. On the positive side, it will likely bring a sense of constructive chaos, of serendipitous collisions, of humming energy from unexpected directions. Every once in a while, it will bring a convention-shattering breakthrough.
Create space for others to live beyond their identities. Once we understand these dynamics within ourselves, it helps us create space for other people. For example, I felt severely constrained by the norms of my academic discipline when I was a PhD student. Now that I am a professor, I try to be more expansive in what I consider a valid research project. I am honest with my students about the opportunities and pitfalls of going in certain directions, but I want to err on the side of letting them follow their deepest instincts and pursue their deepest passions.
Remember that branding is malleable. These decisions seem so consequential in the moment. Yes, altering these decisions later can require time and energy, but people—like companies—rebrand all the time. Nothing is forever. You will always be yourself, and you can always find ways to alter how you present yourself to the world.
Look for points of intersection between identities. Magic happens when brave individuals dare to cross stovepiped identities. I have previously written about Jerry Colonna and David Whyte, who have carved out a unique genre to guide corporate executives on their inner journeys. I love eclectic novels like Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, which draws on the author’s far-ranging interests and defies any kind of genre norms. I love the scientific community around complexity theory, built by renegade biologists, physicists, economists, and other scholars who saw something profoundly wrong with the prevailing methodologies and theories in their disciplines. Each of us has our own unique intersection of identities, which creates rich opportunities to give something new to the world.
Keep showing up. This last point is a personal reminder to myself. Anxiety about identity management can become an excuse to stall, to hide, to wait until we have everything figured out. In these moments, we need to continue participating with the world, learning, sharing, and giving. We will figure it out, and even if we don’t, it will be a wonderful ride.
Our rich, multi-dimensional lives will always stand in tension with the demands of society and the market to brand ourselves with specific identities. Managing these identities can be difficult and even painful, but the creative tension can also be a source of creativity and generosity to the world.