Paul McAleer: Hi. You're listening to Designing Yourself. My name is Paul McAleer.
Whitney Hess: And this is Whitney Hess.
Paul: Thanks for listening. This week, we're going to go with another easy, easy topic and talk about identity. When it comes to identity, you know, there's a lot of stuff that we've talked about in previous episodes regarding who we are and discovering ourselves, but there's a really interesting component that we haven't totally touched on, and that's how we portray ourselves to other people and what that means and the ramifications of that. So, I'm interested in how we craft these identities and how we make up this story of who we are and how we tell other people about that story.
Whitney: I think it's very interesting that you started us off by defining identity as the image that we portray to others when so much of what I think about, when I think about identity, is how I perceive myself.
Paul: That makes sense. That makes sense because there's been so much we've talked about with external versus internal, right? So, undoubtedly, there's room for both. I go to the external because I think about this. You know, we've talked about how we can fragment our online image, for instance, and where we write and kind of how that all contributes. I see that all making up parts of our identity, but there are lots of other parts that are just not seen, and they're kept internal as well.
Whitney: Yeah. I wonder if there's another word for it when you're referring to the things that you're experiencing about yourself internally that you aren't exposing or portraying to others, but now I'm really interested in looking up "identity" to see what the dictionary definition is, but I'm not going to because it's for us to define, right?
Paul: That's right. That's right, and you know, it's funny because at the conference I was at last week, just about every presenter - not including myself - used a Wikipedia article somehow in a presentation.
Whitney: Oh, my gosh.
Paul: So, it's not bad. It's not bad at all. It's just something that we can all rely on. So, we can look at it that way.
Whitney: I worked with an organization a few years ago that often had students come through and work with them on things, and I was privy to this recent teacher development, having not been in school for quite some time. Apparently, now, teachers won't allow their students to use Wikipedia articles as sources for their school papers.
Paul: Oh, it seems reasonable. Yeah, I'd be scared of that, too. I'd be really scared.
Whitney: So, we are not going to rely on the masses of Wikipedia editors to tell us what "identity" means.
Paul: Exactly. I mean, really, when I look back, when I look at the notes that I, kind of, took before we started talking, I had three points that I wrote down. It's who you are, how to craft it - as far as identity goes, and what "identity" means. That's all I wrote. That's it.
So, the who you are part, to me, is probably the most intriguing thing, probably, because it's a matter of this image that we have for ourselves, as well as others, about how we act, how we behave, what we do, what we should do, what we could do.
I mean, there's a lot of "shoulds" and "coulds" around, too, but then, there are things that fall outside of, you know, that camp of, Well, we should do this or could do that, and yet, we might do those things we could or should do, or we'll just do things that we, you know, that don't fall into those buckets pretty easily, too.
I think that all makes up parts of our identity. The big question is, you know, is it possible to have an independent identity, or are we just, kind of, all part of one big thing, too? You know, another small question.
Whitney: You touched on something very interesting there, which is: do our behaviors shape our identity, or does our identity shape our behaviors? That is a big question for me, and it comes up a lot in the coaching program that I'm enrolled in because we talk a lot about how to help people recognize their blind spots and overcome them in order to reach their full potential, both in their personal lives and in their professional lives.
A big part of what gets in people's way is this idea of who they think they are, which is often called "your personal narrative." I know we've talked a lot about this, the narrative that you have running inside of your head about who you are, what you're supposed to do, what you're not supposed to do, what people like you do, "this kind of person" - I'm putting heavy quotes; you can't see them, air quotes around "the kind of person" that you are - as though you can be categorized and sorted and slotted into this way of being or this, I guess, "identity" would be the right word for it.
A lot of times, that narrative that we have about who we are - that question that you asked, Who are we? - is often filled with misconceptions that we've taken in from external sources over the course of our lives, all the way back to the very beginning. Of course, mom and dad are to blame for everything. We, then, internalize those and repeat them so much that we start to believe that they're true.
So, how is it that we can change that narrative, recognize what has been running on loop in our minds, and purposefully choose to believe something else about ourselves and tell ourselves something else, thereby, perhaps, changing our identity?
Paul: That's a great point. One of the things that really blew my mind the notion that the voices in our head might not be our own voices, and I know you brought that up a few weeks ago when we spoke. I still love that. That's been sitting with me.
Similarly, some of those things that we hear in our minds about ourselves and our behaviors are not really our own voices, and that's not in the stereotypical. It's not a "voice in my head" type of thing, but it's more that we've heard these things from other people or the media or whoever over time, and we've internalized them.
So, we hear them all the time, and we say, you know, I should do this, or I shouldn't do that, or you know, what have you, but we may start to think they're our own. It takes very attentive listening to one's self and listening to that voice to really identify where it came from and if it's you or not.
That kind of ties into the identity stuff a little bit because you may hear these things, these voices around a behavior, but they're not necessarily your voice. They are others, and we might play them, and there's no necessarily judgment there. It's just it may not be you who is making that statement or asking that question, why you're doing that, or what have you.
Whitney: Now, I need to tell you this thing that comes up for me often when conversations get around to this topic. I don't want to go too far off course. So, if you feel I'm going there, please stop me.
Paul: Will do.
Whitney: Okay. So, I am mildly obsessed with this concept of Panopticon. Have you heard of this?
Paul: Yes, but you need to refresh my memory.
Whitney: Okay. So, what you're saying just brings this to the forefront of my mind. So, that's why I want to go there. The idea of Panopticon was, it was a philosophical notion that was then adapted into a prison design, and it was a circular or hexagonal prison, where all of the - and I'm going to use all the wrong terminology because, you know, I just don't have my prison terminology down - but all of the little rooms where people live, you know - their cells, thank you - their cells were around the perimeter of this building structure.
In the middle is a courtyard. So, imagine a circle or a hexagon that has its perimeter enclosed, but then, everyone comes out into the courtyard, into the center, and in the very middle of the courtyard is this - what's it called where the people with airplanes direct - air traffic control tower. It's like that, tall and hovering above the whole prison. It's kind of circular, so it has 360 windows. It looks down on the courtyard, and it looks down on the cells in the building and the whole structure and the whole floor plan, essentially, of the prison.
What was so revolutionary about this prison design was that they only had to put one guard in that observation tower because that guard could see everything at all times, but here's the thing. They found, after a while, that because the prisoners knew that they could be seen at all times, they didn't even have to man the observation tower. They didn't have to send a guard up to the observation tower anymore because the design of the prison encouraged self-discipline.
The reason I'm telling this story about Panopticon, and why I'm so fascinated with the design, is because I've felt as though there are many times in my life where something has been so deeply ingrained in me, or I've been conditioned to believe something that the person who did the conditioning is long gone, long out of my life, but what they conditioned me to believe still exists, and I'm the one who keeps telling myself over and over and over again what I'm supposed to be doing, how I'm supposed to be behaving, what I'm supposed to be thinking, that I just govern myself.
That's what Panopticon was all about, and I think that, in many ways, it's what you were saying, that there's these voices inside of your head that, in many ways, shape your identity, and those voices don't even belong to you. They were put there, so to speak, by someone else. Maybe you allowed them to be put there. Now they've shaped the whole image of who you think you are and the way that you present yourself to the world.
Paul: Absolutely, and you know, it's funny because right before this, I was also thinking about some sort of prison analogy. No, no, no. I was not. I promise. I was not.
Paul: Because that would be too much of a coincidence. Also, it's interesting you chose a prison analogy when dealing with the self. So, there's probably something there.
Whitney: Oh, yeah.
Paul: That all said, you're right in that that's a really great way to think about it as well because we have this, you know, these parts of self theory, which I totally subscribe to, where you have all these parts of yourself, and essentially, there are people or voices or what have you that judge the other parts of comment on the other parts or love the other parts or anything with the other parts, but there's that type of interaction.
Where that comes from is the thing that you need to analyze and understand and also to realize that, yeah, these things may be long gone, but part of that also ties into understanding who you are now, in the present, which is hard stuff because, you know, as we've talked about before, we change all the time, but these are things that, you know - you had suggested blaming your parents for everything, as some psychologists probably would - it comes from your upbringing. It comes from school. It comes from childhood. It comes from adolescence, kind of, all these things that stay with us over time and during our development, I would think.
They stick with us, and we bring them in. We let them in. We allow them in. I'm curious why we allow them in in the first place. I mean, I trust there's no blanket answer for everybody, but I wonder if that's just because we're, you know, simply because we're developing and figuring all this stuff out or trying to figure it out or if it's due to sense of self or lack thereof or kind of where that all falls in.
Whitney: I think that's a really great question, and I don't know that it's because we're weak and vulnerable and pathetic and how dare we allow other people's ideas for who we are shade who we think we are. I think that you make a really good point when you say maybe it's just because we're starting out. We need to learn and grow.
I'm thinking now about the definition of "identity" as it applies in our professional space, brand identity. I am unaware of any organization, company, initiative, anything that starts, that Day 1 starts with a well-defined brand identity, and it's just not the thing that's on the tops of people's mind, and it's certainly not the thing that's of greatest importance.
Most people start with a mission or an intention or an idea, and that idea grows. It's over time that they figure out what they stand for as an organization, what their mission truly is, and how they want to present themselves to the outside world. I've been involved in many identity projects that are for organizations that have been operating for a very long time.
Then, there's rebranding, which happens when, perhaps, the company wants to reach a new market, or they aren't experiencing the success that they once did, or they're expanding into a new industry, or whatever.
It makes sense to recalibrate how they express themselves - and that thing that you were talking about before, about identity being this expression of self - so, we come together, and we get a bunch of professionals that have experience expressing themselves as designers.
That's, in many ways, being experts at communication is a big part of what we do, and they help this organization to tease out who they really are, and then express that, communicate that, to the outside world in the way that it's understandable, and it's compelling, and it's interesting, and it differentiates from the competition, and I think that it's not unlike what many of us go through as individuals, on a personal level.
There's a lot of living that you have to do before you truly can identify what your identity is. I think that it's not a mistake that identity and identification, you know, have the same root words, that being able to identify makes sense of clearly define something, ultimately is the basis for what your identity is.
On a personal note, I was very clear - and I've said this to you before, and you know, it's kind of been the theme of my last year, but - I thought, for 30 years, that I was very clear on what my identity is. I'm a native New Yorker. I'm a tough chick. Don't cross me. I can take on any business situation. I'm, you know, independent and successful and ready to, you know, change the world.
That was, in many ways, kind of the identity that I always had, that I could go anywhere, do anything, and I'm sure that that was, in part, because I needed to cover up some of the insecurities that I'd always had, but I also was raised in that environment. I was born and raised in New York, and that's kind of the identity that a lot of people take on.
It's a very rough-and-tumble city, where if you don't move fast enough, you're going to get, you know, eaten up and chewed and spit out, and so, you've got to move with the pace of things. So, that was what I took on as being who I was.
It took me having a series of revelations about myself - often occurring outside of the city when I was traveling on business and very lucky to have opportunities to experience other places - that I realized, you know what? I don't have to be rough.
I could be soft. I'm not any less me if I'm a softer person. In fact, maybe I'm really a soft person. Maybe I'm really not about technology. Maybe I really am about people. Maybe I'm not really about criticism and negativity and power and success.
Maybe I'm really about equanimity. Maybe I'm really about compassion. It took moving somewhere else and really trying on a totally different lifestyle for size to determine that what resonates with me now, at this stage in my life, is actually very different than what I used to think of myself as.
As I said to you before, there were some people that kind of freaked out when I left New York, being, like, No. You're a New Yorker. Like, you don't leave New York. Like, no way. You know what? I did, and I'm a lot happier now, and I could very well move back tomorrow, and great, or I could go live somewhere else.
We don't know what the future brings, but this idea that our identity changes, that nothing is permanent - like we talked about last episode - is something that is really important to me, and I think that you make a fantastic point that it is something that evolves and that we need to just be for a while and learn and grow before we're able to truly define it.
Paul: I also think there's something that you've been talking about that's highly relevant, and that's the degree to which place affects identity as well. You know, you talked about New York, and at that same conference I was at last week I talked a lot about how I'm from Chicago and how I'm relatively nice.
I'm not Minnesota nice, but I'm from the Midwest, and we're relatively nice people here, even though Chicagoans can be jerks sometimes, but that plays into it, too. You're impacted by where you are, and that's not necessarily geographic, although that plays a role, but it's also family. It's also work. It's also friends and social circles and, you know, if you're religious, any kind of religious organizations, stuff like that.
Basically, all of those things also shape your identity for sure. I was thinking mostly about place because I think, you know, there's a certain identity that I associate with New Yorkers, and it is kind of a rough-and-tumble, and I kind of don't, you know, I kind of don't care about other people, but it's almost kind of a tough love kind of thing, you know? Kind of that mixed - It's almost a stereotype, but it is kind of a stereotype.
Whitney: But the crazy thing about it, though, is that it is an identity, not a reality, because New Yorkers are so kind and giving and helpful and loving and community-oriented, but meanwhile, the outward persona - or the "identity" if we are going to call it that - is this external expression of the self is a very rough way of being, but that's not the reality of who the people really are on the inside.
Paul: Yeah, and that makes sense. I wonder how much of that, you know, is a front? You know? I mean, for that matter, how much of my being nice is a front as well, you know?
Whitney: Well, if you remember -
Paul: You know.
Whitney: I know. Well, no. You are this nice. Listeners, he is this nice. It's very annoying, but no. Remember, we were talking about Sara's piece on "Empathy Starts With Vulnerability"? One of the things that she talks about in there is "fronting" - that in the workplace, we're so afraid of being raw and exposed that we put up a front to make ourselves seem more together, more confident, smarter, whatever.
All the time that I come into contact with folks who are, you know, work for my clients and maybe getting in the way of progress on a project or naysayers about the work we're trying to do or whatever that they have taken on that persona of being the obstacle. Often, they're just fronting for feeling out of control of the situation, insecure about their position in the company, unclear on how they're going to continue to play a role or whether they're of any value to the company at all, etc.
Like, it often does have to do with their own sense of vulnerability and their own confusion, perhaps, about their place. Is that an identity crisis? I mean, is there this - Like, you were saying, you consider yourself to be "relatively nice," but not as nice as Minnesotans, and then, if you maybe realized that being nice isn't serving you, and you need to find a way to be less nice, is that identity crisis?
Paul: I don't think so. I think my identity still allows that to happen. I mean, that's within the realm of me. I don't have to be nice, but I choose to because I enjoy that, and you know, that tends to work pretty well for me.
You know, something that I'm wondering here, while we're chatting about this, is I'm wondering if I'm confusing reputation and identity because to me - and here's why - because I'm wondering if identity is more possibly internal-facing, and reputation's more external because if you think about it, a reputation you don't really have that much control over it.
I mean, it's based on your perceived actions and behaviors and words and all that good stuff and, essentially, the things you put out into the world, right? There's a reputation around you that builds up, but it's not something, you know, you necessarily can control it.
Like, neither of us have perfect control over our reputations. There's a part of me that, you know, it's like, how is that acceptable? Like, I'd love to, but we simply don't. I mean, we have no control over that stuff, but identity, I'm wondering if that's something, then, you know, we have a better grasp of because it is more about ourselves and how, you know, the groups we identify with and the beliefs we identify with and the things we don't believe and, kind of, sussing all that stuff out.
Whitney: I think that they are very interrelated, identity and reputation, but I see them as being different. I actually think I agree with your original definition of identity, that it's the outward or external representation of the self or expression of the self. I think it's what's happening outside of you in relation to other people, the same way that reputation is, but from - at least the way that I think of reputation - is the reaction to your identity.
It's, like, what other people think and feel about who you are, and who you are to them - to the outside world - that's still your identity, but I don't think that they're necessarily the same thing. I think that your identity impacts your reputation. For many people, your reputation impacts your identity.
Immediately, I think about that girl, who was a total slut in high school, because everyone talked about how she was a total slut. So, she was, like, Well, if I already have the reputation of being a total slut, I'm going to go be a total slut because if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Paul: Right. [laughter]
Whitney: You knew that girl, right?
Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Whitney: I totally knew her, and I swear, I wasn't her, but I totally knew her. That becomes this cycle, right, of the reputation impacting the identity. She may not have thought of herself that way beforehand, but then, she somehow got this reputation, and that changed her perception of herself.
So, now, she's had a shifted identity, and now, she's going to act in accordance with that identity, and that goes back to what I was trying to explain about the coaching methodology or philosophy that's present in my program that our existing narrative isn't only shaped by our behaviors, but it shapes our behaviors.
So, what we think we are determines how we act, and how we act reinforces what we think we are. So, really, the only way to change that narrative is to change your behaviors because otherwise, it's just a vicious cycle.
Paul: That's true. That's true, but I'm wondering, like, with the slut example [laughter] -
Whitney: Sorry if I offended anyone with the word "slut." I hope I didn't.
Paul: We're going to stick with it, so, more offending is coming up, but with that, for instance, if the reputation is out there that she is, for instance, it's also, I would think, on her to choose whether to take that in or not.
Like, to essentially say, Okay. I am, and I'm going to go with it. Boy, this example is a good one. Or say, you know, I'm not and still fight against it and just essentially fight, too. I think that's an important word. I see it as a fight because if the reputation is this thing, and you're not actually this thing, then you're going to be fighting against it.
Then, it becomes, you know, what are the things that you do to change that reputation or influence that reputation, since you can't actually change it. I don't think you can. You know, what are the things that you can absorb as part of your identity and put out in the world that may or may not change that. It depends on what your goal is, but I also see that as a choice thing, too.
I mean, she didn't necessarily have to say, Okay. I am that. I identify with that. She could have - I don't say just as easily say, but - she could have chosen to do something that's probably more difficult and say, No. I don't identify with that at all. That's not me. So, I'm just going to keep doing the things I do, and if people, you know, see me that way, well, tough.
Whitney: Well, I think the point that you made earlier about identity being something that gets shaped as you learn and grow applies here because at that young age, perhaps, she doesn't have a strong enough sense of self to take a look inward and say to herself, You know what? That's not actually who I am. What they're saying I am doesn't resonate with me. I feel strongly that that is not me, and so, I'm going to just send my true identity.
Instead, it could be that at that point in time, when you are still learning and growing - and, hopefully, we always are learning and growing, but there's a point in life in which you just don't have enough of that perspective on who you are as an individual that it can be very easy to believe what other people say about you.
So, maybe in the situation that we're talking about here, who she saw herself as was not as strong as what other people told her she was. So, there's not necessarily that positive influence or the cues from other places in her life to reinforce that positive - which I'll call it "more positive" - identity of her being not a slut than there is of people who are negatively influencing her to believe that she is.
So, maybe there's that push-and-pull there that a lot of how we define ourselves to others - as, of course, we would suspect - comes from the amount of personal resolve that we have and ability to self-reflect and make good, strong decisions about ourselves without the influence of others.
Paul: Totally, and that's very difficult to do, in my experience at least. I think you're right in that when we're younger, it may be even harder. I mean, there are some people that I can recall from high school and college - and not really before that but a little more in high school and more so in college - who really had this strong sense of confidence and self.
It was like armor. It was, like, nothing ever really get them. I don't know how much of that was, you know, spin or, you know, managing one's reputation and how much of it was genuine, but it certainly came across that way. That's something that I find, you know, admirable to a degree. I still do.
I also see that as something that has a lot of hard work that goes with it as well.
Whitney: I think part of what we haven't really expressed yet in defining what this hairy empathize - See, I was about to say empathy. Oh, my God. This hairy-identity thing, it often has a lack of empathy for the individual.
I think that a lot of times - and I'm thinking back, again, to the branding exercises that I've worked on - it's about relating this one thing to all other things, like, categorizing it and putting it in that box so that whatever characteristics it has, you can express, kind of, broadly. Paint it with a broad brush, so that you can more easily understand what it is in relationship to other things.
I'm using a lot of words to say I think that there's an aspect of identity which is grouping one's self or another in with a lot of similar other individuals. So, you know, if you're a modern company, or you're a traditional company, that's kind of the identity.
We have these pre-conceived notions of what modern or traditional is. By me labeling this girl as a slut, that's like saying, Well, when girls get that label - and, often, guys get that label, too - it's painting them with a broad brush.
It's saying, Let's not take a look at their specific behaviors. Let's not take a look at their motivations or their attitudes or their background. Let's just assume that they're what we think of as a slut, and then, it's, like, kind of, rounding out the edges or abstracting away from who that person really is, saying, You don't need to really get to know this on a deeper level. This is its label.
I mean, I feel like that's what identity in some way is. It doesn't have as many of the nuances as your true self does, but it's kind of this abstracted version of self.
Paul: Oh, it's totally nuance-free, I think, for the most part because - I know we've chatted a little bit about how I was hesitating to identify myself as a runner, and that was because of all the trappings that go with it, in my mind, and all the negative stuff, which I don't really have as a runner, or at least I don't think I have.
I didn't want to be called that. So, I disallowed that, but the truth is, I am. I'm thinking similarly around something that we both did, independently, you and I, where - I think it was a week or two ago maybe - we both declared ourselves writers. Just independently. It just happened, which was just another wonderful coincidence.
For me, what it was is, I was really ruminating on this a little bit and thinking about all the things I do and how much writing I do and how much writing I do at work and how much writing I do when I'm not at work.
I've been writing for a damn long time. I've never been formally trained in writing. I've never gone to a formal - Well, not a formal writing class, although I've taken fiction writing in college, which was pretty awesome and exciting for a semester.
I've just been writing so long that I am a writer, but I never took that label and made it part of my identity, but now I have because I am. That's something I'm totally comfortable with. Now, that's not something that I was willfully excluding from my internal narrative or even my external one about myself.
It was always there. I just didn't recognize it with that label, but now, I'm taking on that label as well. So, I'm taking on all of those things from - at least from an external perspective, I guess - where I don't have control over what people think about that, but I'm confident in my skills as a writer to the point where I can say to myself, Yeah. I am a writer.
Whitney: And I think that what's so interesting about that is that when you claim that for yourself, I imagine that what you portray to others about who you are changes as well because now you have this increased confidence that being a writer is, in fact, part of your identity.
I struggle with the same thing. I was a professional writing major in college after I switched from computer science and before I picked up human-computer interaction as a double major. Writing has always been my first passion and my greatest passion.
It was never the thing that I was very good at. It was never the thing that I was encouraged to do. It was actually the opposite of all of those things. It was just what I loved to do, even though, for a very long time, I was told I wasn't very good.
I didn't think I would ever be able to do anything professionally with it. So, I kind of just put it aside. Then, I learned to find my place in the field of technology in a way that really resonated with me and felt authentic, which was working on the human side of technology, and that has been a tremendous passion as well.
I think it's obvious - in all the things that I do and write about and speak about-that I have devoted myself to that, but on a deeper level, I wanted to call myself a designer, as a professional, a user-experience designer, because I wanted to be perceived as someone who crafted solutions and who, though, had a specialization in user experience was still just as legitimately a designer.
That was really important to me in the context that I was in early in my career in the agency world, essentially. It was only recently that I felt this urge to really be called a "writer," that being known as a writer, seeing myself as a writer, was more authentically me that I had wanted to be seen as a designer because I thought that that would take me somewhere professionally, and quite frankly, it did.
At the end of the day, I never cared what side of the page the box was on. I never cared about the details of the interaction design. When I, you know, over the last decade, was exposed to interaction designers who truly cared about these things and who were so fantastic at making these decisions and transforming an experience through their work, I realized, guess what? That's not me.
I love talking about this stuff. I love speaking about this stuff. I love sharing my insights and my lessons with a broader group of people outside of just my organization or my clients' organizations or whatever. That's what I want to be a part of.
I want to be a part of the evangelism. I want to be a part of shaping what this field is and its relationship to related fields. Just being able to say, Okay, Whitney. You're a writer. Call yourself a writer. You don't just write, but you are a writer, and it's not the third thing on the list of things that you do. It's the first thing. That's really how you spend your time, and that's what you love to do the most. So, put that out there. Be true to your true identity.
I struggled with it for so long because I kept telling myself, I can't really call myself a writer because I don't get paid to write. I get paid to do client work, and my client work involves helping companies to improve the designs of their products, ultimately.
No, I might be doing that through workshops. I might be doing that through presentations. I might be doing that through training. I might be doing that through deliverables. Sometimes - but more than not lately - I don't have very many deliverables at all. I'm working from a more strategic standpoint with my clients.
So, then, okay. I'm not getting paid to write, but I'm also not getting paid to design, technically speaking. So, what do I call myself then? Am I just a consultant? And this whole thing of, like, needing to own the identity of being a writer became really challenging for me.
I shared that with a small group of friends that I'm on a Facebook group with. One woman responded, saying that she has been a travel writer for a decade. She's been paid to write for a decade, and she can't claim the identity of being a writer.
So, here's someone on the totally opposite end of the spectrum from me in that she gets paid to write and only gets paid to write. Yet, she doesn't feel like she can call herself a writer because she thinks a writer is someone who defines their own subjects, who writes from their soul, who writes creatively, and that she's been writing, you know, based on the assignments that were given to her by her employer.
So, everyone has their own definitions of what is allowed within the confines of an identity. If we're going to say that being a writer is an identity, I think how you define that, how I define that, how she defines that, they're all very different things, but meanwhile, we all want to apply the same label to ourselves.
I think that, in many ways, that's where it gets confusing, where identity - as you define it for yourself - is a very, very challenging thing to communicate to others and have it be perceived as you intended it.
Paul: Well, I think, yes. You are right on basically all of those points. I'm going to just blindly agree with everything, but I was listening, I promise. It's really hard for us to encapsulate who we are into any one thing, although we try to do that anyway with other people and probably ourselves, too, you know?
Like, we really try to capture that into a word or a phrase. Like, "writer" is loaded. "UX designer" is loaded. "UI" designer is loaded. "Plumber." You know, and I'm thinking a lot of professional stuff, but then, it's also, you know, things like husband and father and boyfriend and girlfriend and all these things that we may attach to ourselves and take in as part of our identity.
These have meaning. I mean, these aren't just random words, and we clearly identify with at least one part of it, if not the whole thing. So, then, why are we so wanting to simplify that? Why isn't it always this giant list of things that we are or are not because it is a giant list of things. It's giant.
I mean, you know, we're both in our thirties. We've got giant lists of things that we are right now and things that we have done and things that we, you know, things that we will do. Well, we don't know, but it's not something that you can just sum up in one word or one phrase or one idea. It's the self, you know?
Whitney: It's all of it. Right, and how do you express that to someone else? Often, now, we're forced to express that in 140 characters or less. I'm reminded of Friendster, which had this "About Me" section that was endless. I remember that I was always tweaking my About Me because it was that one place that I could really express who I was.
I would struggle between using verbs, like, I collect Pez dispensers. I write about whatever. I enjoy these types of movies versus nouns: movie lover, writer, you know, avid reader. When we use nouns to describe ourselves, we're putting those identities on us, and it has its benefits, and it has its drawbacks.
The benefits being that it feels more defined - at least for me - like, this is who I am. I'm clear on who I am, and I want you to get the sense that I am clear on who I am versus being, you know, creating misconceptions about what that really is.
An avid reader, to me, is someone who can get through a book in a month because we lead crazy lives, and who could read a book for pleasure in a month? It's crazy, but to my dear friend Clarice, who is truly an avid reader - she gets through multiple books a week.
So, if I define myself as an avid reader, that's part of my identity. It means different things to different people. Our obsession with claiming who we are, you know, in some ways, it has its benefits because it helps to differentiate you from other people, perhaps, but it also has all of that baggage that comes along with it.
Paul: It does, and I need to ask: do you collect Pez dispensers?
Whitney: I sincerely collect Pez dispensers.
Whitney: Well, so, okay. Okay. Okay. Here's the thing.
Whitney: I just felt inauthentic saying that. Why? Because it's been several years since I bought a new Pez dispenser, at least one that was a collectible. So, I collect Pez dispensers. Maybe as a verb, I collect, I don't feel as inauthentic about it, but to say I am a Pez dispenser collector, for some reason, that doesn't feel like it's as true.
Like, I want to couch it by saying, Well, I actually started collecting Pez dispensers when I was in the eighth grade. I found them at flea markets. I was one of the early eBay users, and eBay was, in part, created to help trade Pez dispensers.
I have belonged to a lot of Pez dispenser communities over the years, but meanwhile, it's not something that I'm actively doing. So, I feel like I can't call myself that. That's no longer part of my identity. At some point in my life, it was, and I felt very good about saying I am a Pez dispenser collector, but that's not me anymore. This is true. I actually do collect Pez dispensers.
Paul: Wow. That's pretty awesome. I would not have guessed that either, by the way. Not at all.
Whitney: Right. It's not part of the identity that I portray, I guess, and it doesn't fit in with the identity that you know me as having.
Paul: Exactly. Exactly. That's why I was so surprised, and what a great example because I was also thinking about how, you know, when you talk about a collector, I started thinking about generally online forums and stuff like that. Like, when people are really, like, geeking out over stuff because I remember one time, when I was looking for information on a particular ceiling fan part, I stumbled upon a ceiling fan fan forum. It's a thing. It's a real thing.
I didn't, you know, I was just surprised at the time, but then, the beauty of this stuff is that people can absolutely identify with it and geek out over it with other people if they want to, or if they just need a part, like me, you know, that's a very different process. I mean, I greatly appreciate ceiling fans, but I don't collect them, and I'm not an aficionado or a fan because, boy, that pun is too obvious. I mean, there are things - Yeah. Yeah. I had to go for it.
Whitney: But you are a punner.
Paul: I am absolutely a punner. I love puns so much, and I identify myself as one as well. I don't know. There's probably a very punny term for what that type of person is. That is part of my identity.
Whitney: You said "punny," like "funny."
Paul: It is punny. Yes.
Whitney: Like funny?
Paul: I've also used "punnery" before.
Whitney: What's that?
Paul: Oh, it's a made-up word.
Whitney: Like a nunnery?
Paul: Sure. Whatever it rhymes with. That works for me.
Whitney: My mind just simply doesn't understand puns.
Whitney: I love a good double entendre. Don't get a pun.
Whitney: So, you're going to have to explain them to me when you drop them.
Paul: [laughter] I will. I'll make a note of it for sure.
Whitney: Thank you.
Paul: I will say "pun intended" in that case, and we'll go for it.
Whitney: Okay. Thank you.
Paul: But it is interesting that I didn't use to collect Pez, but I used to collect baseball cards when I was a kid, and I bet a lot of people did, but that's something that really faded away a while ago. All those baseball cards are still at my mom's house, but I don't identify myself as a baseball card collector any more.
That's just not me, you know, so, that's an activity that, for me, is in the distant past and has no relevance to - well, I shouldn't say that, but I will anyway - it has no relevance to who I am now, but that's not true because it absolutely does have some degree of relevance. I just might not be able to perceive it, you know?
Whitney: Completely, and I think that it's not just about your own perception of yourself, but it's what you're bringing to the forefront to others, too, right? I mean, I'm giggling because this stuff is so interrelated. It is a part of who you are that you had this part of your past help to define who you are now.
There are probably skills that you picked up from having this hobby that you employ now, whether or not you're aware of it, but it doesn't have usefulness in your identity any more. I think that that - at least saying that out loud - helps me give greater definition to what identity means for me that it is not the entirety of the self, but it is what is most relevant at the time for myself and for other people.
So, this very conscious decision to say, I am a writer - and it's not going to be the third thing that I list in my very short bio on Twitter; it's going to be the first thing that I list - is to say that I've always been a writer. It just had less relevance to my identity than it does at this moment in time because I'm trying to do things with my writing in a more meaningful way that I wasn't in the past.
In the past, I was really trying to do stuff with design work that I needed to be the largest part of my identity that other people would perceive so that it would enable me to keep doing that work. That's what my goals were at the time.
Now, my goals have shifted, and I'm maybe no less a designer, even if I'm designing less, verb, but I am more inspired to and more - I'm having a hard time finding the word, ha ha, writer - I'm more inclined to present myself as a writer, first and foremost, now because it serves the purpose that I am focused on at the moment.
Paul: Sure, and that totally makes sense as well. I mean, it's really about who you are in that moment and how you identify yourself in that moment as well.
Whitney: Absolutely. So, I have a question for you. We have been talking about how we define ourselves, how other people define us, how we want other people to define us, all that stuff. What happens when someone tries to steal your identity? Do you actually lose an identity? Is it possible?
Paul: Well, are you referring to the - I'm curious if you're referring to the idea of identity theft, or are you referring to something less tangible, I guess?
Whitney: Okay. So, I'm thinking of identity theft, as it comes about, you know, from having someone take your credit card information or opened up new accounts in your name, but I'm also thinking of identity theft in the sense of, let's say, a professional persona where you have defined yourself as being an "X-Y-Z," and you feel as though that's differentiated, and that's your brand identity.
So, that's, like, the external identity, but it's also the way that you see yourself and the value that you bring to your profession, and then, someone comes along and starts doing that, too. So, I think that both examples are relevant to this idea that someone else can take your identity on as their own. Does that mean that you no longer can have it or that they just have it, too?
Paul: They have it, too, but it's going to be unique to them. I mean, I'm thinking more about the latter than, you know, the very, like, Hey, we're going to, you know, take your credit card info, which, you know, I've had happen once and stuff like that because that, to me, is slightly different because if someone were to come out and say, You know what? I am all about empathy.
That would be fine. They could totally do that, and there would be some people who would absolutely - in some circles in UX at least - who would think of you because that's where you've put a lot of your brand, and that's where a lot of your identity is, for instance, but that doesn't mean that you can no longer identify with that as being, you know, passionate about that and being skilled at that because other people are as well.
I mean, the fact of the matter is, you know, you're not the only one who does that type of work, but you do it in the way that only you can do it, and that is true of anybody who does the work. Like, everybody does it in a unique way. You know, when we talk about work, we talk about processes and techniques.
One of the things that I'm fascinated by is how it varies from person-to-person. That's true of anything because, really, what we're doing all the time is we're taking all of these influences from other people and kind of bringing them into ourselves and re-mixing them and putting them back out in the world.
That's true of identity as well because there are things that I've taken from people whose work I've admired or influenced or copied. You know, the old saw of, you know, good artists copy great artists - steal. That's true, right, because people just - you take all that stuff in. You absorb it, and then, you do with it as you will, and it comes out in a very unique way that is unique to you.
Whitney: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Paul: Totally, right? Totally, and that's why, you know, that's something we see a lot of. We see that a lot. I don't see that as something that really threatens identity. At that level. I don't see it as something that threatens identity or negates it within the person who, you know, originated it such as it is. It's simply continuing on in a different form. I think that's okay.
When it comes to, you know, things like identity theft, well, I didn't really enjoy it when somebody pretended to me and buy some stuff. That wasn't very fun. I mean, they weren't using - The facet of my identity they were using was really around my finances, which I find dreadfully boring, but they found it very good because they could buy a bunch of shit and not deal with any of the consequences, right?
So, and that was a relatively lightweight thing because some people have had much, much more severe things. There have been things I've been reading online about that stuff in the recent past. Like, you know, identities just being hijacked, and it's crazy shit.
Whitney: But can an identity be taken away from you? I mean, what you said before sounded to me like you were saying that identities can be shared, but how each person lives is unique. So, you may have the same or similar identities. You might be perceived as being in the same category of things, but the way one person does it, and the way another person does it, you can still see the distinctions of.
Perhaps, if have the distinctions about that thing, like, I can see some distinctions in the way different people act. Like, I've been watching films, and I've been going to the theater and seeing shows and for a very long time. So, I have a sense of the different techniques that people use to act, but with regards to - I'm going to call on opera because one of my best friends is getting married this weekend, and she's an opera singer.
She has taught me a lot about opera, but I still don't have any distinctions around opera singing that I would know that one person's using one technique, and one person's using another. I probably wouldn't be able to differentiate between a soprano and a mezzo. I know that those things exist, but to me, they're all opera singers. So, that's their identity to me, opera singer.
So, I'm wondering, then, if identities can be shared in that way, then with identity theft, can something be taken from you, like, where it's no longer yours, or is someone else just adopting it, and it remains yours at the same time?
Paul: Well, I think it depends on the intent there, honestly, because, you know, if you think about it in, kind of a, let's say, not realistic way, certainly, two people could share the same identity when it comes to social security number and credit card info and stuff like that. Like, that could be shared. Like, in theory, you could share that with another person, although society would not really be finding that terribly acceptable, and the individuals might not find that acceptable either.
Whitney: Do you remember "The Net", with Sandra Bullock?
Paul: Of course I do. I click on "Pi" on the corner of every Web site I visit.
Whitney: Oh, my God. So, that was identity theft, wasn't it?
Paul: Yes, it was.
Whitney: And they were taking it away from her so that it was no longer hers.
Paul: That's true, and I think, again, it comes back to intent because I also think about - [laughter] Thank you for referencing "The Net."
Whitney: [laughter] I freaking love that movie.
Paul: Because that envisioned a time when we could order pizza online, and it was, like, Oh, that would be so cool. It reminds me - Oh, boy. I'm going to sidebar really quick for a minute. Back in, I think, '95 or '96, there was something called "the Internet Pizza Server," where you could, you know, pretend to order a pizza online.
Like, you could order your ingredients and stuff, and then, it would just, I think, list out what you would get because that's all we could do. You could not actually order a pizza online pretty much anywhere at that time. It just wasn't, like, the stuff wasn't really in place for that. At the time, it was mind-blowing to think about that because I think "The Net" was later. I think that was, like, '99, I want to say, but I could be wrong.
Whitney: Oh, I think it was earlier than that, but the thing that stuck with me on "The Net" was that it was possible for computer programmers who worked at home to be hot and in shape.
Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was good. Sandra Bullock. Awesome.
Whitney: Yes. I was unaware of that at the time, and perhaps that inspired me.
Paul: Maybe it did.
Whitney: I thought, Oh, I could be hot and in shape and work from home and be a computer programmer.
Paul: Absolutely. Anybody could, right? That's so true. So, there's another show, "Orphan Black," a wonderful sci-fi show. I highly recommend it. It deals with identity as well. Actually, gosh, it's a core component of the show. I don't want to spoil it, but there's a lot of stuff around identity that happens in the very first episode that makes it worth watching. It's very good, very, very good, and I highly recommend it.
It comes up there, too, because there is a bit of the hijacking of one's identity and taking over somebody in a way and just choosing to do that and going with it, but it's about the intent, I believe. It's about what you're intending to do with that. You know, the person who stole my credit card was really just looking to, you know, get a bunch of crap and fill up the gas tank in their car. I don't know why. I never found out why, but I was able to stop them because I didn't want that to happen.
You know, I wanted to protect that part of my identity pretty fiercely. For me, thankfully, that was relatively easy to do. It may be very difficult for somebody, like Sandra Bullock, to do that. You know, then it ends up being this big thing, and I kind of forget the climax of that movie. I remember something about an important disk, but I might be confusing it with "Independence Day." I'm not sure.
Whitney: No. No, there was a disk. There was a disk. She has a copy on the disk. Yeah, definitely an office space, but I'm now reminded of another movie - since we're on a movie kick about identity - the movie, it's self-titled "Identity." Have you seen that?
Paul: I don't think so.
Whitney: Also sci-fi-ish. Yeah, John Cusack. Highly recommended.
Paul: He's good.
Whitney: I don't want to ruin it either, so I can't say much, but the premise - on the surface of things - is that it's about a criminal, perhaps murderer - it may be; I can't remember - who has Multiple Personality Disorder and is being released from prison or has escaped from prison. Now, I can't remember. He is out there.
Part of what they're assessing is how, you know, which of these identities is his because when you have Multiple Personality Disorder - like that TV show that I've never watched, "United States of Tara" - you are expressing all of these different sides of yourself.
What can be very challenging for the people in your life is to differentiate between them and to determine which of those is your true self. That's kind of what the movie is about but actually not really at all. It's really just, like, a psychological thriller, sci-fi kind of thing, but I highly recommend it. "Identity." John Cusack.
Paul: Okay. So, we actually have some things to watch and see.
Whitney: Oh, yeah. I've never even heard of "Orphan Black."
Paul: Oh, wonderful show. Goodness, gracious, so good. Yeah. I recommend that, too.
Whitney: Part of my identity is that I'm not actually a nerd. Like, I work in this nerd world, and all my friends are nerds, and all of my clients are nerds, and I'm, like, supposed to be a nerd or something, but I'm not. So, I haven't seen, like, the "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings."
I haven't read Isaac Asimov or whatever. I don't even know if I'm saying the right thing. I just don't even know about any of this stuff. There are so many times when friends or colleagues will make some reference that is clearly a nerd reference - just because of, like, the words that they're using and the happy look on their face - and I'm just, like, I am so glad I have no idea what you're talking about.
Paul: I mean, yes, and I have that as well. It's funny because I, for a long time, wanted to fight the image of being a nerd or a geek, and there is a difference, but damned if I can remember what it is. I really wanted to fight that. I think I've just been able to kind of let go of that and say, Okay. Yeah. If you call me that, that's fine.
I mean, I have - thanks to my past - I have a rather staggering knowledge of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Wow. That's a geeky thing to geek out over, but I will geek out over that with somebody, and then, I'm also, you know, it's almost like touching back to the pen stuff, too, because I'm a pen geek, and I'm starting to turn into a coffee geek.
These are things that I'm happy to identify with because I see them as things that I enjoy, or I'm proud of maybe in way, too. Then, you know, there will be times when people make - much like you mentioned - "Lord of the Rings" references, and I have no clue what they're talking about, and then they're stunned by the fact that I have not seen any of those movies. They're like, How can you not see that? It's, like, I simply haven't, and I haven't read the books either, so.
Whitney: So, did I hear you correctly when you said that you are a "pen" geek? P-E-N?
Paul: Yes, budding pen geek. I will qualify that.
Whitney: All right, then, I thought that's what you said. So, I am not a pen geek. However, I lived around the corner from the Fountain Pen Hospital, which is in Lower Manhattan. So, the next time you make it to New York, you must visit the Fountain Pen Hospital.
Whitney: It's been open for, like, fifty-plus years, and it's, like, the place for pens and, like, getting the inserts for your pens and ink and all sorts of things. It's pretty amazing.
Paul: Well, I'll tell you. There was one time when I was flying through New York, and I was at, oh, gosh, JFK, I believe. Sorry. I know you have airports in New York, folks, but I forget what they are.
Whitney: Yeah, JFK is one of them.
Paul: JFK and LaGuardia. That's pretty much it, and Newark, I think, too, right?
Whitney: Yep. You got it.
Paul: Okay. I've done travel before. There was the Muji-To-Go store. My mind was blown at the sheer number of pens they had there. That kind of turned me on to it because, apparently, you know - and this is way off topic, but that's fine, but - there are a lot of people who really like Japanese pens.
The Japanese have an enviable selection of pens available to them. I mail-order them from japens.com because that is how much I care about my pens. I am that specific. I am that specific. There are pen bloggers and stuff like that. Like, this I'm aware of, but I am not one of them.
Again, it's like the ceiling fan stuff. Like, your reaction is pretty much my reaction when I saw the ceiling fan fan site. It was the same thing, and now I've lost all my cred with the pen-geek community. I'm certain.
Whitney: No. I think pens are awesome. I totally know that Muji store that you're talking about, and if I remember correctly, Muji has a lot of pens that are, like, wrapped in paper, like, that brown paper kind of thing?
Paul: Yes, they do, if memory serves. It's been a couple of years.
Whitney: Yeah, it's like a cylindrical pen, and it doesn't have any, like, hard edges, like a lot of pens do. It's, like, wrapped in paper. Anyway, yes. Muji is cool, but I am a little bit surprised, a little bit taken aback, that you have your pens ordered online from Japan.
Paul: I've gotten persnickety with my pens. I like a certain millimeter width, and it's 0.38, 0.4 is okay. Anything else is kind of ridiculous to me, so, there you go.
Paul: Yeah. How about that.
Whitney: Oh, my goodness. Well, on that note, ladies and gentlemen, time to go order your pens.
Paul: Yes, and I think we're done with identity.
Whitney: Yeah. I want to say a couple of things. Not to get somber, but I did want to take a moment at the end of today's episode to just say that one of the instructors of my coaching program passed away suddenly last week, and it was awful.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen some of my Tweets about it. I don't need to get into specifics here, but she felt very passionately about this concept of identity. A lot of what she did in her coaching practice was to help people come to terms with who they truly are, their true nature, and find a way into that - to let go of the stuff from their past and those old tape recorders playing in their mind, and be their true selves.
I credit a lot of what I understand about this process to her that I learned in the short period of time that we knew each other, and I just wanted to acknowledge the importance of her life. It's crazy that life is so impermanent, as we've talked about, and that the rug can just be pulled out from under you in a moment's notice, but you know, everyone leaves an impact.
Her impact was far and wide. She had tens of thousands of students pass through school, whose lives she touched. I am very grateful that I was one of them. So, I just wanted to say that. If you wouldn't mind, Paul, so, we'll figure out after this whether you think it's worthwhile or not, but there is a link for fundraising for her family that I would love to throw up on this post if you'd be open to it, and anyone who feels like they have anything to spare, if you'd be willing to share it with her family, that would be amazing. I'd really appreciate that.
Paul: Absolutely. Of course, our thoughts are with her friends and family. This is a very difficult time. We'll absolutely put up that link in the blog post. No doubt.
Whitney: Thank you, and thank you for chatting with me about this today. This is something that I think we can't - Like, most of our topics, or all of our topics, couldn't possibly do justice in just an hour or over an hour, as it's been, but I'm grateful that I have the chance to talk about these things with you, and I hope that those of you who are listening find what we talk about to be relevant and truthful in your lives as well.
We would love to hear from you, hear what you think about this episode and other episodes, the content, the format, any things that you want us to clarify or ideas for topics that you want to hear us speak on, we're really open to it, and we wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for you guys, our listeners. So, thank you so much for being a part of it.
Paul: Thank you for listening. If you want to get in touch with us, there are a few ways you can do that. Our Web site is designingyourself.net. You can follow us on Twitter @designingyou, Y-O-U. You can follow me @PaulMcAleer, and follow Whitney @WhitneyHess. Our super-secret e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please keep that feedback coming. We really do appreciate it. You know, we read every single Tweet that's addressed to one of us or the show. So, please keep those coming. They're very valuable.
Whitney: Thank you so much, Paul. Thank you to everyone listening. I guess, we'll end it here. Until next time.
Paul: All right. Take care, everyone. Thank you.