The Problem With A Single Identity

We all may have gotten some fashion of advice that basically dictates that we should focus on one thing in life in order to be successful. If we spread ourselves too thin, then we end up not being good at anything. We end up as Jacks and Jills of all trades, masters of none. But what happens when that one thing on which we focus goes wrong?

Imagine a scenario of an athlete. Every aspect of her life is tied to her sport. She trains almost everyday. She watches videos of the sport everyday in order to perfect her technique. She has no hobbies other than her sport. The only time she travels is for playing an away game or for training. Her only friends are her teammates. Her income comes from playing the sport. Her entire identity is invested in this sport. Then one day she gets injured, can no longer play and she gets cut from the team. What in the world does she do with her life now? Her entire identity is threatened because that sport was who she was. Now who is she?

This is the same sort of situation for students whose entire identity is placed in academics but one day fails a course. Or any person who’s entire identity is their job but one day gets laid off.

If we invest our entire identity into one single activity or lifestyle, then if that activity gets threatened, our entire identity is threatened. We begin to question the whole point of our lives. This can lead to purposelessness, nihilism and depression.

That’s a problem.

So then aren’t we in a Catch 22 situation? If we can only become successful if we have a single focus but yet a single focus could be such a problem, then what can we do?

Let’s explore that.

The Benefits of Identity Diversification

Indeed, it is important to be monomaniacally focused on a single goal or craft in order to become a master at it. However, it’s also important to not let that thing be your ONLY source of fulfillment. For, if it is, a threat to that goal or craft becomes a threat to your entire identity.

To provide more perspective on this point, take a listen to this audio article by Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck:

Diversifying your identity is like diversifying a financial investment portfolio. If we put all our money into one single investment, we run the risk of losing all of our money if the investment crashes. However, if we invest in many different avenues and streams of income, then some will go down and others will go up, reducing the risk of total loss. Of course, this also reduces potential gains but if we choose great investments to begin with then, ideally, when one investment falls, many others go up. So at any single moment, there are far more rising investments than there are falling ones.

To tie this analogy back to identity, diversifying one’s identity is like creating an “identity portfolio”. It encompasses being involved in multiple activities/crafts. Allow your fulfillment to come from multiple things. For example, in addition to work, you could take a dance class and have goals for that too. So if you have a bad work week, you’ll still be happy because you finally got that Windmill from your break dance class 🙂

There are many benefits of identity diversification:

  1. Sustained optimism and motivation – If things go wrong in one area, we can still be optimistic and driven because things are going good in another area.
  2. Increased grey matter – The grey matter region of the brain contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies. This region is responsible for many things including memory, decision making and self control. Numerous studies show that grey matter can be increased by things such as meditation, exercise and learning new things. This, in turn, improves memory and IQ. So if we expand our identity by learning something new or practicing a new activity, we can increase our grey matter.
  3. Reduced risk of depression – In the audio article above, Mark mentioned the story of a very depressed finance professional who lost all his money. He fell into a deep depression because his identity was tied strongly to his ability to make money. So when he lost his money, he lost his identity. Placing your identity into multiple sources of fulfillment reduces the risk of falling into such a depression when one thing happens to fail because fulfillment would come from many areas.

In this interview below, at about 47 seconds in, angel investor Tim Ferris makes the point that a huge contribution to startup founder success is a diversified identity. He finds that startup founders who don’t only focus on their startups tend to do much better.

…So clearly identity diversification is a very good personal strategy to employ. It makes us happier, more optimistic and even increases brain function. But still, what if I don’t want to be a jack of all trades and master of none? How do I effectively diversify my identity without spreading myself too thin?

A Good Identity Portfolio

The key is to create an identity portfolio of things that enhance each other yet don’t necessarily rely on each other. The things we should add are things that we can integrate into our lives without requiring a huge time commitment.

Here are some examples of good things to add:

  • Regular Exercise – Exercise enhances your life in general by giving you more energy, increasing dopamine (happiness hormone) levels and simply increasing health. So regular exercise will potentially enhance all parts of your life. It can be taking a dance class or cycling or lifting… anything physical.
  • A new craft/skill – Learning new things increases grey matter in the brain and creates new neural pathways which may actually increase our skills in seemingly unrelated tasks. So this will enhance other areas of your life as well. This can be like learning an instrument, or learning to juggle or learning to cook.
  • A new language – This provides all the benefits that come with learning any new skill. But in addition, it makes you a much better communicator, even in your own language. Learning new languages reveals subtle nuances and approaches to communication that we may not have noticed before. So, in addition to being able to communicate with more people, you’ll be able to communicate better with people as well as understand people better.
  • Traveling – Traveling and learning about new cultures broadens one’s mind. Seeing how other cultures function develops a breadth of understanding of different ways of living, different kinds of problems and different types of people. This can give one new perspectives on solving problems in one’s own culture and life. Traveling can also increase empathy by being a part of the lives of people who are much different from you are.
  • Volunteering – This is another amazing way to increase both gratitude and empathy. Volunteering with the less fortunate can put things into perspective by allowing you to see how much worse other people have it. It’s not that your problems are not real but seeing people with different types of problems that you do not experience can make you very grateful for the blessing that you do have. Being grateful is a sure way to increase happiness and having empathy paves the way for creating meaningful connections and relationships with everyone in your life.
  • Meaningful Relationships – I believe everyone should add this to their identity portfolios. It involves not just creating meaningful relationships, but also (and even more importantly) enhancing the relationships we already have. Allow your identity to be tied to being a loving father, a great sister, an awesome friend. A great sense of fulfillment can come from meaningful relationships. If you show love to the people in your life, chances are they will show love to you. You will therefore have a support system. You will be stronger.

The beauty with these suggestions is:

  1. They don’t have to interfere with any other goals. They can either be integrated into your daily/weekly habits, or they can be done in small breaks on a weekly or yearly basis (eg. traveling once or twice a year). So you can still be heavily focused on your goals while creating a new layer of yourself and a new avenue of fulfillment.
  2. They they make us all round healthier, happier, smarter and wiser. They enhance other parts of our identity by growing us as individuals.

Any choice having these two qualities is a great thing to add to your identity portfolio but really there are no limits to what you can add.

So if you find that your entire identity is tied to only one aspect of your life, please try this out. Diversify your identity. Add something to your identity portfolio that can enhance your life. Add a new healthy habit or a new skill or travel more or invest more into your relationships. See if that increases the quality of your life. I think it will.

May you live a happy, diversified life 🙂



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