Have you ever been in a meeting or at a training course, where you are asked to introduce yourself? What do you say? Your name, what you do for a living, where you are from? When people introduce themselves on TV Game shows or talent shows, they often say these things e.g. “My name is Jonathan, I’m from Henley on Thames in Oxfordshire, and I am an Author and Speaker”.
The simple truth is, that our identity is complex, we can identify ourselves in so many different ways.
Definition of Identity
An amalgamation of dictionaries definitions of identity is “the characteristics determining who or what a person is, or the qualities or attributes of a person that make them different from others or similar to others”.
The Difficulty Defining Identity
Pick any other species than a human being, and try to describe their identity; it is much simpler than describing the identity of a human being. When we think of animals we might look to gender, age, size, appearance, physical characteristics and perhaps temperament. Occasionally with animals, we might think of the roles they perform e.g., queen bees and worker bees, dairy cows, guide dogs. Different animal species live their lives in different ways, some stay in family units, others in herds, packs, pods etc. Some have leaders, others don’t. Nature seems to have its ways, animals are what they are, and do what they do, but we human beings are different, our thinking brains give us and almost infinite number of choices, thoughts, beliefs, preferences, that means that whilst every human being has things in common, we also have the potential to be more different than any other species.
Whilst some human being’s life is still centred around the basics of survival, growing crops or hunting animals to eat, building shelters, making clothing etc. many others living in the westernised or modern world, have a myriad of career and life choices, and life has moved well beyond the relentless grind of survival, into a world of material pleasures, experiences for simply the sake of pleasure, hobbies, interests and a plethora of other choices. We might enjoy going on holidays, going to the theatre, going out for meals, doing exercises classes, learning new things, sight-seeing, going to theme parks, or engaging with like-minded people.
The modern world offers huge opportunities that were never before possible, but at an individual level, the complexity of life is responsible for an epidemic in mental health, pressure, stress, worry, anxiety, depression, self-harm, even alarming levels of suicide.
The 7.4 billion people in the world are all unique, with their own identities, no two people are exactly the same, not even identical twins, we have many things in common, but we are all different.
Why Identity Matters?
Be the change you want to see in the world
Against this background, who we really are, can have profound implications on the quality of our own lives, and the impact that we have on others, and the wider world. There is a strange thing, in that, we human beings, have a need to interpret and assess things, as part of this, we subconsciously like to put people into boxes, which impacts our interest in them and reaction to them. If we perceive someone to be important, we are likely to treat them in a different way to someone we think is not important. If we were to meet the Queen, The President of the United States or an A List Celebrity, we are likely to act in a very different way than we would, perhaps meeting the dishevelled homeless person, asking us if we had any spare change. Even though most people feel that it is right to treat all people equally, subconsciously human nature takes over. Our brains can’t stop forming judgements about people, and often those judgements are wrong.
In my early career, one of the jobs I had working for the Mobil Oil Corporation, which was then the world’s fourth largest company, was as a salesman to car dealers, truck dealers and agricultural dealers. I remember one of the owners of a prestigious BMW dealership, telling me a story of a scruffy guy who turned up to the BMW garage on his rather old bicycle, he lent it against the showroom window, came in and started asking the salesman questions about the most expensive luxury BMW in the showroom. The salesman was less than impressed having this time waster taking up his valuable time, and was rather unhappy about having the old bicycle lent against the showroom window, but in fairness, there was nowhere else to put the bike. You can probably guess the ending, the guy said he would come back in the afternoon and buy the car, the salesman still didn't take him seriously and believe him, and of course he did come back just as he said, and bought the car. There is a saying don’t judge a book by its cover, but we really find it incredibly difficult not to.
Richard Gere is a multi-award winning A List celebrity actor estimated to be worth about $100m. Whenever he is in public, he attracts the sort of interest and attention given to many rich and famous people, yet in 2014, he dressed as a homeless person, he searched for food in bins. Nobody recognised him, or paid him any attention, he said: "When I went undercover in New York City as a homeless man, no one noticed me. I felt what it was like to be a homeless man. People would just past by me, and look at me in disgrace. Only one lady was kind enough to give me some food. It was an experience I'll never forget”.
Who you really are matters, because you can only know what you really want, when you know who you are. If you don’t know what you really want, your life and career can end up taking directions that make you unhappy, unfulfilled and unsuccessful.
There is a great quote from Buddha: “Your work is to find your work, and then give yourself to it with all your heart.”
Psychologist Abraham Maslow called the unchanging innate nature of a person, that is where a person can make their highest and most productive contribution to the world. You might gain new skills, experiences and capabilities, your preferences and the things you like and don’t like may change over time, but there is a core part of you that never changes. That core part is so important, but it is incredibly difficult to define.
When my wife was a young girl, she always liked children, and for as long as she can remember, she had a feeling that she wanted to work with children. She left home, aged just 16 and did a two-year nursery nurse course, before becoming a nanny. For 35 years she has been continually working with children, she trained as a Montessori teacher, then became a school head teacher, and for the past 25 years has been running her own Montessori nursery school. She recently won an award, sponsored by a major international bank as one of the 5 most inspirational people in the childcare sector in the UK.
There is a place for all of us in the world, where we can be happiest, most fulfilled, make the biggest difference, achieve the career success we desire and meet our financial needs and desires. Some people, like my wife, find this space early in life, which is great, but many people never do, and as a consequence, they live lesser lives.
You are probably familiar with the saying “round pegs in round holes, square pegs in square holes”. The truth is that none of us are round or square, we are our unique shape. If we spend our lifetime trying to squeeze through holes that aren’t best suited to us, we are not going to either have the best life or career or make our best contribution to the world.
Knowing who you really are, liberates you, sets you free, enables you to fast track towards a better future. You get to do what you love, play to your strengths, love what you do, be who you really are, and be all that you can be. Despite this the journey towards self-discovery is one taken by the few rather than the many, because most people aren’t doing it, we don’t usually even think about it, let alone do something about it.
Lives can be transformed, organisations improved beyond even the wildest of dreams, and the world made a better place, if only human could find ways of helping each other to discover who we really are and where we can all make our highest and greatest contribution.
Identity Perception versus Reality
“We see the world and other people, not as they are, but as we are.”
There is a very interesting fact and that as the Richard Gere story shows, people’s perceptions become reality, e.g. when people see and recognise Richard Gere at a movie premiere, he is a movie star worthy of adoration, but Richard Gere in scruffy clothes, out of context means people see him as a homeless man who they think is a disgrace. He is the same person, just the perceptions of the people judging him change. We think we don’t judge others, but we all do it every day, it is part of being human. In this respect, what other people think of you, might have a profound impact on your life. That is bad enough, but there is an even more shocking truth, and that is how you see yourself has an even greater effect. If you have been brought up to believe you are dumb, good for nothing, ugly, incapable of achieving anything worthwhile, it is incredibly easy to believe that it is true, even though it may well not be. You peg your aspirations and behaviour to your perception of yourself.
Have you ever been in a work situation and seen the useless person get promoted, perhaps instead of you, or other worthier candidates? It happens a lot, there are times maybe where you are a beneficiary of a less than objective judgement of others, so unfairness can benefit you as well as hinder you.
Educationalist, Professor Ken Robinson delivered a particularly popular TED talk that has been viewed 38 million times, where he talks about how the educational system discriminates against creative children, favouring academic skills more, despite creativity being of immense value to society.
Do you see dress as white and gold or blue and black?
Two people can look at exactly the same thing, yet actually see something completely different. In 2015 a photograph of a dress appeared in the world’s media. Some people saw the dress as white and gold and others as blue and black. How can this be possible? The reason for this is about the way our brain’s interpret visual signals, it really comes down to our inner wiring of our brains. We see the world not as it truly is, but as we are.
Bad Ways of Defining Who We Really Are
Our ego has a useful role in our lives, it gives us our sense of identity; it is the thing that helps us to recognise who we are as a unique and distinct personalities apart from the universal consciousness, but it can sometimes hinder us. We all have a higher self, that sits above our ego, it is the innate part of us that never changes, regardless of the circumstances and influences we may have experienced.
In the modern work the epitome of success is often seen as being rich and famous, therefore if you are not rich and famous you are not successful or certainly not as successful and that is simply not true. The objective of life should be to be happy and fulfilled and make a difference, achieving the career success you desire and meeting your financial needs and desires. The worst way of defining who you are is to succumb to ego identification, where you give supremacy to these beliefs
- I am what I have. My possessions defined me.
- I am what I do and have done. My achievements define me.
- I am what others think of me. My reputation defines me.
These things might be used by other people to judge you, but you should not get confused into thinking that these are the most important things, they are not.
How you See Yourself Matters
Confidence and self-esteem are linked into one’s own perception of your identity. If you don’t see your own value and can’t value yourself, you are far less likely to have other people value you. Whilst some people undoubtedly have high opinions of themselves, that objectively aren’t deserved, I believe most people are much better than they think they are, and I am sure you are included in that!
Working out Who You Really Are
Our childhood experiences and education, help to create a perception of our own identity. Subconsciously we absorb other people’s projections of who they think we are; personal circumstances, environment, peer pressure, the media, and society all play their part. Often our parents have very strong ideas of who they want us to be, and what they want us to do. Often we believe all these things, even when deep down inside we don’t feel comfortable with them, in fairness, we often don’t know any different. Some aspects of identity are religious or cultural, others relate to gender or other criteria.
By the time we enter adulthood, we have already attached many labels to ourselves about who we think we are, and other people will have attached their labels to us also. Our identity is a collection of all these labels, and thoughts, perceptions, beliefs and truths, and it shapes almost aspect of our lives. At different times, different aspects of our identity will have different importance. Our gender matters when we go to a public toilet, if a man goes into a women’s toilet or vice versa, it is seen as socially unacceptable. Our age impacts what we can and can’t do, or should or shouldn’t do. National and religious culture and beliefs impacts what is considered acceptable or not acceptable. Depending upon what metaphoric labels we have, opportunities are either open to us, or closed to us. If you don’t have the right qualifications, you can’t go to university, or get jobs you might want. You might be discriminated against for a whole variety of different factors, including: the colour of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion, your nationality, your age, any disability you may have, your appearance, accent, what you wear, your beliefs, your education, where you live, who your friends are etc.
Your identity from a job hunting perspective
If you are applying for a job, employers normally expect to see the following aspects of your identity:
- Your name.
- Your nationality / working status.
- Knowledge – What you know.
- Experience – What you’ve done.
- Skills / Competencies – What you can do, and probably what your core skills are.
- Achievements – What you’ve achieved.
- Who you’ve worked for, where and for how long, doing what.
- What education you have.
- What qualifications you have and perhaps what grades.
- Where you studied.
- What professional memberships you have.
- What training you have undertaken.
- Where you live.
- Perhaps what your interests are.
At interview, they are likely to try to understand your personality, character, your aspirations, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, value to the team / organisation, your reputation etc.
Understanding Your Identity Is Like Assembling Pieces of a Jigsaw Puzzle
The elements of who you really are frequently used in job hunting, are just aspects about your identity, but you are much deeper than this, there is so much more to your identity. The deeper you dig into your identity, the more you realise there is to discover. Many aspects of your identity you taken for granted; you don’t even associate it with your identity, but they exist nevertheless, like your DNA and genes.
Your Identity is a like a giant jigsaw puzzle. At your core you are a human being, a bonafide member of the human race, which infers genius, and puts you at the top of the animal kingdom, with superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and range of capabilities that are unmatched by any other species. You have biological traits and characteristics that are a part of your identity.
Top neuroscientist David Eagleman, made an incredible six-part documentary series on the human brain, it is one of the most fascinating documentaries I have ever watched, and I highly recommend it. The first programme was titled “what is reality” and the second “what makes me”, which is about how our brains give rise to our thoughts, emotions, our memories and personality. Apparently our brains are the most complex thing in the universe, so you, me and everyone else is pretty much a marvel just by existing.
Who other people think we are matters a lot, because for so many things, we need to rely on the support of other people, but it doesn’t mean that we are in reality who they think we are, what matters most is who we think we are.
As well as writing non-fiction books myself, I help other people to write them, and also publish them. Gary Dutton was one of my customers, he left school at 16 with no qualifications; his teacher bluntly told him that he would never amount to anything in life. He is now worth about £130m, at one stage he employed 1,000 people. He has his own executive jet, his own private mini cruise ship, a Ferrari, and a Rolls Royce. He discovered himself to be a far greater person than his highly educated teacher believed him to be. However you see yourself, the truth is, that you have genius within you, you have the potential to be a far greater person, than you or others might believe possible; we all possess unlimited potential, that can be accessed by believing, stretching and doing, and ultimately being who we really are and also the best of who we really are.
Once you gain an awareness of how others perceive you, you are able to develop strategies to deal with the situation.
In my new book “Career and Life Game Change – Change the way you live your life and manage your career forever”, I talk about how we are all comprised of four key elements that make us who we are:
- Thinking Self
- Feeling Self
- Universal Connected – Knowing Self
Neuroscientists know enough about our brains, to know that they are made up of different parts, our thinking self and feeling self are in fact different parts within our brains. The thinking part of our brain in evolutionary terms is apparently the youngest part, it is the logical rational part. When we make decisions we often think that we have thought long and hard about the decisions we make, taking a considered view, but the reality is, that most of our decisions are instinctive, gut feelings, based often on the least amount of data. Having made an instinctive decision, we then subconsciously seek justification from our logical brain after the actual decision was made. The truth is, that we are not the paragons of reason and logic that we might think we are. Have you noticed how we’ll justify decisions we made, why we need to extra-large 4K TV, with awesome surround sound or if we are a lady, why we must have that new dress or pair of shoes.
The universal connected knowing self, could equally have been called the soul / spirit part of us, but I deliberately wanted to steer away from both religion and spirituality, because I think they evoke strong beliefs for and against. There is a part of you that is as connected to universal forces, the same universal forces behind every living thing on earth. You represent a tiny percentage of the universe, but you are definitely a part of it. Your body contains energy and energy is never destroyed it is only ever transferred from one type to another. Mankind might have mapped the human genome, sent men to the moon, and achieved all sorts of scientific discoveries, but human consciousness still holds many secrets. Edgar Mitchell was an astronaut on an Apollo mission and walked on the surface of the moon. He was a doctor of science from MIT, yet “as he approached the planet we know as home, planet Earth, he was filled with an inner conviction, as certain as any mathematical equation he'd ever solved”. “He knew that the beautiful blue world to which he was returning, is part of a living system, harmonious and whole—and that we all participate, as he expressed it later, in a universe of consciousness."
At some stage in your life, you are likely to want to see the bigger picture, to see your life time as a whole, and to see your place within the universe. Often it takes something bad happening to make you think of these things, perhaps a life threatening illness or accident, or the loss of someone close to you, to make you think about your whole life, and question how you can make the most of it.
Our physical form is our body.
In my book, I identify three primary drivers in life, supported by two secondary drivers:
Three Primary Objectives in Life
- Be Happy
- Be Fulfilled
- Make a difference
Two Secondary Objectives
- Achieve the career success you desire, whatever that may be.
- Meet your financial needs and desires
You need to firstly know who you really are to know what it is that you really want, when you know that, it then becomes a question of how best to get what you want and then actually doing what it takes.
To be fulfilled you need to:
- Do what you love, which is typically also playing to your strengths, and doing what you are best at.
- Love what you do.
- Be who you really are.
- Do things that make you feel as alive as possible.
- Make as big a difference to others and the planet as you possibly can.
To be happy and fulfilled and to achieve the carer success you desire in particular getting a really good grip on your identity is really important.
Take virtually any problem or issue you have in your life and the best place to start resolving it is internally. Embarking on an inner journey first, makes your journey in the real world likely to be better, more successful, more rewarding and more enjoyable. Simon Sinek suggests with everything you should start with asking the question “why”. Because we are so conditioned by our environment, experiences, people around us, we often find it difficult to know either who we truly are or what our true heart’s desire really is.
Embarking on an Inner Journey of Discovery
It seems absurd to think you don’t know who you really are, given the fact that you have been you all your life, every minute of every day. No one should know you better than yourself, yet it is not as easy and obvious as it may first seem. The reason for this is perhaps complex also, we struggle to gain a big picture perspective since we are too close. Some aspects of who we are, are easy to see, but our innate non changing self and subconscious part of ourselves is difficult to access and to quantify.
Fortunately help is at hand, there are scientists, researchers, psychologists, neuroscientists and experts who have devised clever ways of describing and categorising people via the use of assessment tools. Whilst we are all unique, we have personality traits and characteristics that are shared with other people. A well-used example of this, is the psychological types: introvert and extrovert. Introverts are typically more inward facing and reflective, whereas extroverts are more outward facing and comfortable being in the limelight, initiating conversations and interactions. An introvert is likely to hate the prospect of public speaking whereas an extrovert is likely to relish it. There are certain jobs or roles in life that suited to who you really are.
There are countless different assessment tools, and some are definitely better than others. Each assessment tool completed provides another piece of the jigsaw that is you. Assessments aren’t 100% accurate, but they offer guides and a means of comparison. If you complete an assessment tool and it resonates with your own perception of yourself, which many will do, it gives you proof of who you really are, if it all resonates with other people who know you, you can gain increasing certainty about each tools accuracy.
Each assessment tool will tell your something slightly different, some will fit together with others like a glove, others may provide some contradiction.
When I first started full time employment, I was a Royal Naval Officer, and eventually ended up with a Bridge Watch keeping Certificate, which is the equivalent of a warship driving license. When you are in charge on the bridge of a ship, one of the most important things you need to do is to know where you are. To establish your position, you would do what was called “fixing the ships position”. This might involve taking three compass bearings of known landmarks or features, and plotting them on a chart. Each bearing or line was called a “position line”, you knew that you were somewhere along that line, but you didn’t necessarily know where. When you took two bearings, the two position lines or lines on the charts crossed. Where they crossed is an indication of where you are, but you could make an error when taking a bearing with a compass. By plotting a third position line, you could increase the accuracy, if the lines crossed neatly on a single point on the chart, you could have confidence in the position, however if there was an error, you would get what was called a “cocked hat”, the lines wouldn’t cross in one point, but would cross so as to create a triangle. You were somewhere in that triangle but you didn’t know where.
By taking multiple assessment tools, you are able to gain a clearer position of who you really are. Most assessment tools are designed to tell you something different. They can tell you things that you could never imagine possible, like where you are best earning a living, what is your ideal working environment, what are your strengths, weaknesses, value to the team, preferred learning styles, your risk profiles, roles that would best suit you. The counter side to this, is that you can get to learn what you are not suited to. We often build a perception of who we would like to be, or who we think we should be, we also form ideas of what is good or bad, right or wrong, but the reality is that there are often on rights or wrongs, good or bad. What is right for one situation or role is likely to be wrong for another.
It all comes down to the square peg, square hole, round peg, round hole situation. You are neither square nor round, you are your own unique shape, you just need to be able to define that shape and find the best fit for you in terms of the choices you make in your life and career.
There is no rocket science or even mystery to it, it is all quite simple, to make the most of your life, you need to have a very good understanding of who you really are, and make wise choices based on that.
If you’ve stayed with me to the end of this article, the chances are you are interested in discovering who you really at the deepest level and also in making the most of your own life. I’d really like to help you to do that, so please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +44 (0)787 33 33 0 33 .
Let me know if you’d like to be made aware when my new book is available, or if you’d be interested in reviewing it before it comes out, or in coming to Henley on Thames for a brain storm and being a guinea pig to the radical new ideas that it contains.
(Copyright Jonathan Blain 2016)