Just be yourself…really?

Identity has a vital function: in order to have a relationship with another I need to have a sense of who I am relating to, I need to get a handle on them. This means that, within parameters, the person who shows up day-to-day I can have some certainty about, make agreements with, make plans with. With some people, like those I meet when walking our dog, maybe all I need is a first name. With others, if we are to do something significant together, like get married, I need to know a bit more. I also need to be able to get some kind of a handle on myself too. It would be difficult if I woke up every day to a different me.

Internal dialogue:

− What will I have for breakfast today? Cereals?

− No, not cereals – they’re just not me. I’ll have fruit.

− Yesterday I hated fruit! And anyway I didn’t buy any!

− And I have not even begun to think about what to wear!”

You would go mad without it.

More immediately relevant to this article – which follows an earlier one on the nature of genius suggesting that genius is available to all – is that identity, our sense of self, is essential to our individual emergence as a human being for it is on this base that we develop ourselves, promote ourselves and thus take our place in our communities. Having a better understanding about the nature of identity is a prerequisite to beginning to think about and develop a unique individual genius.

Identity has many guises. People ask at a party ‘what do you do?’ They try and place your accent. Try to establish if you are married. You sexuality. Your age. Your religion. Your wealth. Your place in society. All in order to find out something about who you are. And Identity has many close cousins: I, me, myself. Person, self, personality. Then the ever present ‘I’ in our speaking and thinking demands examination for it is this that we frequently relate to as the seat of our self. But it is not so simple for identity is elusive both as a thing and as a concept.

As a concept theologians and religious leaders of every persuasion, psychologist, neuroscientists, anthropologists and philosophers, to name a few categories of interested parties, have through many centuries spoken and written about it, often expounding very different ideas. But there is little that can be said with absolute certainty for there is no scientific evidence for the self. As a thing, well, we have such a strong sense of our selves and our identity that we do not often question it or reflect upon it, other than the occasional moment as when looking with awe at the stars in night sky, we ask ourselves “who am I?” I just am, it’s a given. This given-ness finds an echo in the language: “Just be yourself” – from my observation not always a good idea! The exhortation typically slips by the target but it really demands a question: how would I do that – ‘be myself’? Another common expression is this: “it’s just not me”, maybe said when trying on an item of clothing. Well, which you? The one who parties, the one who goes to work, the one who takes care of the children? If we each can develop a Unique Individual Genius then these questions require a better understanding, if not answers.

The ‘Pearl’ View of Identity

The received notion is that there is a part of me, my identity, at my core. The dictionary definition supports this: Identity: the state of being the same; sameness; individuality; personality; who or what a person is. From idem; the same. (The Chambers English Dictionary 12th Edition).

The state of being the same. A part of our intuitive understanding of identity is to think of it as that element of myself that has persisted through the years. We meet old childhood or school friends and immediately recognize them through a certain configuration of facial parts, a posture, a way of speaking or an attitude. There will have been changes of course, no one survives the ravages of time intact, but there is something the same: who they are, their identity. In this understanding, identity, as with a stick of rock, the confection you might buy at the seaside, which has a word, the name of the resort town where it was bought perhaps, that persists running through the centre as you crunch your way down the stick, has a core which remains the same over time. This has been labeled ‘the pearl view’, the jewel at the centre of the oyster.

But there is an insurmountable problem in the pearl view – nobody has found the pearl! There is no place in the body or mind where the self is located. Even that part of neuroscience community that has been looking at this, has pretty much given up on the search. The scientists cannot identify a location in the brain that might be labeled a ‘unified centre of consciousness’, a self.

The Construct View of Identity

The primary competing view is that of identity as a construct. A construct is something that is put together in one’s mind, as opposed to a real object. A mental model. The suggestion is that your identity is something that emerges as a function of what you inherit physically and mentally, what you absorb from your family environment, your social environment and then from all your experiences and also your memories. Memories are different from the experiences that gave birth to them. What you retain, delete or distort from the original experiences, your memories, become a part of how you think of yourself. Add to this the unique manner in which you construe all of this. How you put it together, understand it, hold it. Unconsciously, you are constructing an identity, a sense of self, which will survive and, with luck, thrive in its environment – that is fitting, to borrow from Darwin.

Julian Baggini, philosopher and author, in his book ‘The ego trick’ explores these two competing ideas. His argument favours the construct conception and, with others, puts the label ‘Bundle Theory’ on it. He suggests our sense of self emerges from our thoughts and perceptions but that there is no “control centre”, no pearl. This is the ‘trick’ of the title of the book. He uses the word trick not as a magician might but as a mechanic would: “So if your car needs repair and the mechanic can’t get the part, he might have a ‘trick’ that gets the car working as normal anyway.”

He goes on to say:

“There is no single thing which comprises the self but we need to function as though there were. As it happens, the mind, thanks to the brain and body, has all sorts of tricks up its sleeve that enable us to do this. Because it succeeds, selves really do exist. We only go wrong if we are too impressed by this unity and assume that it means that underlying it is a single thing. But self is not a substance or thing, it is a function of what a certain collection of stuff does.”

Or, as Carl Rogers, the psychologist said of ‘self concept’

“… the organized, consistent, conceptual gestalt composed of perceptions of the characteristics of ‘I’ or ‘me’ and the perceptions of the relationships of the ‘I’ or ‘me’ to others and to various aspects of life, together with the values attached to these perceptions. It is a gestalt which is available to awareness though not necessarily in awareness. It is a fluid and changing gestalt, a process, but at any given moment it is a specific entity.”

The word gestalt in psychology means: ‘an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.’ This is more philosophical proposition than science. That said, from the work that the Enabling Genius team have done identity as construct has the most weight behind it and, from a purely practical place, is most useful in enabling genius for it takes us away from identity as fixed thing and suggests that it is something that emerges over time and is far more plastic than commonly thought and that can, to a degree, be shaped.

Personal Construct Theory and Construing

Suggesting that identity as construct ‘is more useful’ takes me to George Kelly, originator of Personal Construct Theory and an arch pragmatist. In the early 1930’s, with a PhD in Psychology he found himself in Kansas, USA. This was post-Depression America and the local population was desperate, suffering terrible poverty and with little opportunity to take themselves out from it. Kelly felt himself to be ill-equipped for the task of supporting them but, in listening to his clients and giving them his interpretations of their various situations he saw that, while his interpretations were sought, it was the sense that people made of them that helped. And if this new sense also helped them find a new way forward it was most appreciated.

This observation that people made sense of things for themselves was developed in Kelly’s theory as the idea of ‘the man as scientist’ with himself as the subject. It brings to mind the quote in Plato’s Apology and attributed to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Maybe the ‘is not worth living” bit is a little harsh and even righteous, but as a rhetorical flourish it has drama. It was Kelly’s intent that we should examine ourselves and our lives and this means examining our constructs. This in turn means examining and arranging the facts of one’s experience – creating the construct – and then testing that construct in real life. If the results that follow are aligned with what the construct suggests all is, literally, well. If not we can re-examine the facts and modify the construct.

And this takes us to ‘construing’, a term Kelly used. In Trevor Butt’s book ‘George Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs’, Butt says: “It is important to think of construing as something we do, rather than construct as things we have…Perhaps it is more accurate to think of construing as questioning.” This is a significant distinction because it suggests that construing is a process and, importantly, an on-going one. ‘Have’ suggest something more permanent, more difficult to change. A process, on the other hand, suggests that the construct can shift, change or develop. Many of the constructs that I operate from as a child are unlikely to serve me as an adult.

Max Weinreich, a linguist who amongst many things was the professor of Yiddish at City College, New York gives the definition: “A person’s identity is defined as the totality of one’s self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future”. The definition is fine but the last part of it adds to our understanding of how to develop one’s Unique Individual Genius – ‘as one aspires to be in the future’. For many, such aspiring will be pretty unconscious. For those intent on developing genius, awareness and clarity in one’s aspiration is a point of leverage.

All this suggests that as time passes or circumstances change I can reinvent myself. Reinventions most obviously occur as people pass through different ages and stages in their lives. The mother who brought up the children goes back to work. The former executive takes on a non-executive directorship and a role in a charity. Or the change can be more dramatic and fundamental. I recall my mother telling me about a family friend who worked for years as an accountant and then, surprising everyone, re-trained as a lawyer in his fifties.

Herminia Ibarra has this to say:

“Shaping and revealing the self through testing. Learning from direct experience to recombine old and new skill, interests and ways of thinking about oneself and to create opportunities that correspond to that evolving self”. This approach is based on the idea that you can have millions of possible selves. All you need is to start a very committed journey through daring, safe investigations in which you can see what works for you. In turn, it is important to be aware of how you feel when we play fake self. After the experiments you can shape several possible selves and switch to one with far better chances to succeed and be happy.”

(Hermina Ibarra is Professor of Leadership and Learning at Insead Business School)

My personal construct system is instrumental in what I choose to do and how I show up in life. If this is malleable, and it is, then I can, with care and attention and some patience, shape my ‘bundle’. I can bring to the fore various aspects of my bundle according to the needs of a situation, or better, in line with my intent and aspirations. In the context of Enabling Genius, my Unique Individual Genius is a construct and a part of my personal construct system (I have other constructs, am constantly construing). I may find that I am not clear about what my unique genius is or I may discover that my construct is out-of-date or simply misconstrued. If so I can reinvent, I can reconstrue. Identity shape-shifts – a genius does this consciously.

Authenticity and Continuity

This brings up a question about authenticity. If I can simply modify my construct how can it be really me? This is in part answered by the construct theory itself – there is no real you, merely the bundle doing its trick. Another part of the answer is that an element of anyone’s bundle is their memories and it is these that provide us with a sense of continuity and indeed connectedness. Our memories allow us to connect with the child we once were, and know that one is still that same person – even though every cell in our body has changed. In the quote from Carl Rogers earlier he used the words: “…organized, consistent, conceptual gestalt…”.

Ian Harrison, in his article on identity writes:

“There are, I think, three statements with which most people would agree regarding our experience of identity. Each one of these is helpful in the context of enabling genius. Whichever view you hold regarding the nature of the self, each of us has a strong enough experience of identity to reach one of the most simple and the most profound statements possible: “I am.” There is a me and I am unique. In whatever way my self is constructed; however much of myself exists at conception and to whatever extent I am shaped by psycho-social experiences – I am; and no one else is quite like me.

Secondly, and equally undeniably, I change. I am shaped by my experience of life and I express myself differently in different contexts. Finally, whether or not science ever identifies a core self, I remain recognisable. That is to say that, as I change, develop and grow there is a progressive consistency. If you were to meet a close friend after many years apart you would perceive them to have changed greatly and yet you are almost certainly going to recognise certain traits of character from all those years ago.

I am. I change. I remain recognisable.”

However, the notion of authenticity also conceals a dangerous trap. The idea of a fixed me, an unchanging core is, to some, quite comforting – it means I cannot really change and therefore don’t need to bother. As a coach I have on many, many occasions worked with senior people in leadership positions who have a need, either for their own reasons or because the organisation for which they work demands it, to examine their leadership approach. In this context I hear about authenticity; the change ‘must be authentic’. There is truth in that, but, in more than half these cases, what I was really being told was that the person was unwilling to change. To be fair, there have been many understandable reasons behind the unwillingness:

− fear of failure; “I will never be as good as the previous leader”;

− fear of success, “if I do this well, then I will have to spend even more time away from home”;

− fear of change, “what if I can’t change;

− fear of the cost of change, “I am stressed enough already without taking this change on”.

And more. But it is the death of genius.

So, in the context of enabling genius how might we think about authenticity? While the self is a construct that does not mean that it does not exist. It is a bundle composed of, amongst other things, your experiences, memories, values, ethnicity, religion, education and so on. So do what you feel predisposed to do, probably something you have been exposed to – build on the existing foundation. Do what your inheritance suggests. Do what interests you. Kelly’s rule is to test the construct in real life. If the results that follow are as envisaged, well and good. If not, reexamine the facts and reconstrue.

I remember as an insecure teenager asking my elder sister, Eve, if I should wear a particular deep yellow pullover – would it be me? Her response was wonderful – if you wear it, it will! Of course, I learned over time that yellow was really not my colour given my Irish complexion but walking around Dublin looking like a traffic light stuck on amber did have it’s moments. My point here is that identity is something that develops, or for those interested in genius, is developed, and that trying on new clothes, new ways of being or doing and making mistakes is a useful, expanding and enhancing exercise.

Identity is not a fixed, immutable thing but rather something that can be gently shaped in order that we as humans can thrive, be fulfilled and express our innate genius.

Adapted from ‘Enabling Genius – a mindset for success in the 21st Century’ by Myles Downey