A whole decade ago, Paul Graham wrote an article called Keep Your Identity Small. I believe it’s one of the most important ideas that hardly anyone knows about.

The idea is once you make something part of your identity, you’ll be strongly resistant to changing it.

People can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity… When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people’s identities.

Paul Graham

A rough definition of something being part of your identity is if you say “I am a…”

I am a Mormon

I am a Conservative

I am a lawyer

On the face of it, these seem like bland, factual statements.

But imagine they apply to you. If someone says something bad about the Mormon religion or the Conservative party, it’s like a personal attack on your identity – so you’ll just want to prove the person wrong, rather than listening to any points they make that might have some merit.

Then, if you stop being a lawyer (perhaps because you retire), you might struggle with self-esteem and a sense of purpose because you’ve lost a piece of your identity.

In the UK, Brexit has recently given us the perfect example of what happens when something becomes part of your identity. When you start saying “I am a Brexiteer”, rather than “I voted to leave”, it’s part of your identity – and any argument in favour of the other side feels like a personal attack.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying you shouldn’t hold any beliefs, or be part of any group. But if you can hold those opinions and affiliations as separate from you – rather than something you are – you’ll feel less frequently attacked, be more open to other points of view, and have more productive conversations.

What’s part of your identity? Perhaps conduct an audit, and see if there’s anything you can cast off.

Your turn!

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