It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me. – Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins
”What do you do?”
How people answer this question fascinates me.
Technically, the question asks for the action. What you do.
But people introduce themselves by identity – who they claim to be.
I’m a writer. A doctor. A student.
There’s a dark side to this bias towards identity.
Whenever I’ve set out to accomplish a goal, identity would be the emotional quicksand out to trap me.
Here’s my story.
How I fell into the identity trap
I wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since reading the 4 Hour Workweek.
For years, I focused on becoming an entrepreneur by reading tons of books, attending tech meetups and going to hackathons.
But I was so committed to this identity of being an entrepreneur that I didn’t do the one thing that mattered – launching a product to sell.
Startup bros have a term for this: wantrepreneurship.
Because my perception of “being an entrepreneur” was influenced by the startup industry (teens developing hit apps that get acquired for millions of dollars), I was paralyzed to start a business for fear that I wouldn’t reach the same level of success.
Realizing that this self-comparison was ridiculous, I scrapped the idea of being an entrepreneur.
Instead of focusing on the desired outcome, I focused on the input.
3 years later, I’m still running my education business.
And I don’t care whether someone thinks I’m an entrepreneur or not.
The Subtle Tyranny of Identity
I had a colleague who struggled with weight. Then he got inspired by fitness influencers on
“I want to be known in my circle for being a fit and healthy person.”
He cared more about giving others the appearance that he was healthy.
(Unfortunately this didn’t work out so well for his weight loss goals).
Compare that with another colleague who shared her successful weight loss “secret” – eating healthy and exercising more.
The identity trap shows up in every subtle part of life:
- Oh, I’m not a dancer
- I’m kind of awkward.
- I’m not a numbers person
Herein lies Oz’s First Observation of Identity (TM):
The obsession with identity stops people from taking action.
Having changed careers multiple times, I can attest that being a beginner is the perfect opportunity for impostor’s syndrome.
That’s because identity forces a binary position – you either are or you aren’t.
Say your identity out loud, and people will assume the best and think that you are a professional or expert at that skill.
But what about the big gray middle?
Unless you’re in a clearly defined profession like medicine or law, it’s tough to know when you can claim to be any one thing.
If you’re in a creative field, when is it enough time to call yourself a designer, writer or artist?
In my experience, focusing on doing is much more productive than being.
- It’s easier to work out than be fit.
- It’s easier to draw than be an illustrator.
- It’s easier to code than be a programmer.
- It’s easier to talk to someone than be a charming person.
Nike Shia and Just Do It.
Why action beats identity
Consider these successful historical figures who didn’t set out to become anything in particular:
- Martin Luther King Jr. did not set out to become a political activist; he wanted to be a pastor.
- Julia Child worked in media and even government intelligence before writing her first cookbook at the age of 50.
- Ashton Kutcher was majoring in biochemical engineering when he was discovered by a talent scout.
Man makes plans and God laughs.
None of these celebrities had “always wanted to be political activist as a kid” or even had a discrete goal to be any one thing. They became successful by taking action, focusing on action over identity.
Herein lies Oz’s Second Observation of Identity (TM):
Taking action helps people build their identity.
If you’re are struggling trying to be something, consider just focusing on the core action essential to that identity.
- Instead of trying to be popular, build a social community around you
- Instead of becoming a life coach, actually serve clients with good advice
- Instead of being a writer, actually start writing
Identity follows action.
Action creates identity.
And that’s if you care to be anything at all.
Also published on Medium.