In this post: How the difference between personality versus identity is like the difference between your physical frame and the clothes you layer on top—and what that means you can do to be your best.
Imagine you had a genetic close who was born 3,340 years ago in Egypt.
In what ways would you and your ancient twin be different?
Your Cairo clone certainly wouldn’t be a nacho lover, digital nomad, NBA fan, or blogger. And they’d probably be more of a cat person.
And in what ways would you two be similar?
If your clone were teleported to the seat beside you and you went out on the town together, traces of resemblance would peek through, right?
For instance, I imagine my clone would share a bit of an unconventional bent, social unease, and poor dancing ability.
Those glimpses of similarity are your core personality. And the adjustable layers on top make up your identity.
Your Core and Its Many Covers
Your personality is your core self.
Unlike your physical core, which you can alter with diet and exercise (or lack thereof), there’s not much you can do about your core personality.
Your personality is largely determined by the way your brain is wired. This affects traits like intelligence, coordination, and a good deal—50 percent—of your CANOE personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extroversion.
Your personality will change with age, but as predictably as your body changes over time. And there’s little you can do to stop those changes, either.
So, unless you have a lobotomy or some other brain trauma, you’re stuck with the personality you’ve been wired with.
Layered on top of your core personality is your identity.
Your identity is like clothing over the core frame of your personality.
It is mainly determined by your culture and circumstance. So for the same reason you wouldn’t feel as comfortable as most Brazilians wearing a thong bikini bottom or banana hammock Speedo, you feel comfortable in a certain identity ensemble.
Unlike personality, you have complete autonomy on which identities you use to present yourself to the world. This can make a much bigger difference in your life than any clothing choice.
The wrong identity outfit will give you the itchy sensation that you’re not moving as freely as you should in life. But with the right one, you’ll feel comfortable in your skin and like you’re getting closer to your potential.
Find your ‘Fit
Your challenge is to find the identities that offer the best fit and functionality for your personality.
This limits your options. You can’t just squeeze yourself into identity and hope it’ll work out well for you in the same way the Queen of England and Queen B, Beyonce, are best off not swapping wardrobes.
Even so, there are millions of potential identity combos that’ll work beautifully on you.
It’s about mixing and matching to find your fit.
The challenge is there are no private dressing rooms with mirrors where you can try on various identities. The only way to find great fits for your personality is through trial, error, and some flexibility.
When you find something that works for you, you’ll feel it. Others will see it, too. People who know you will say things like, “There’s no way I could pull that off, but you rock it!” And you’ll feel like a million bucks.
Daniel Kahneman says a poorly-chosen identity is like a handbrake. It holds you back and requires tons of willpower to power through. But if you can identify it, release it, and replace it with another, you can accelerate smoothly in the direction you want to go.
For example, my introverted personality makes me as uncomfortable acting gregariously as I do wearing a stuffy suit and tie. And I used to make myself extra uncomfortable at social events like weddings by stuffing myself into the identity of someone who “hates big gatherings” and “is not a party person.” So I’d drink my brain’s wiring into a mess to cope with the discomfort.
But then I learned to separate my personality from my identity.
I stripped off the identities that made me uncomfortable and replaced them with something better suited for my wiring and the occasion: “low-key, easy-going guy who enjoys meeting cool people.”
By working with my personality in this way instead, I can find ways to enjoy gatherings like weddings. And my hangovers aren’t nearly as bad.
Practice Identity Minimalism
Trying on different identities takes open-mindedness and pragmatic problem-solving.
Yes, those traits are influenced by how your brain’s wired, but anyone can do it. It can even be fun. And once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard.
But this ease of trying on identities has a downside:
You risk accumulating so many identities that they weigh you down.
That’s why Paul Graham wrote his famous essay about keeping your identity small. By “small,” I don’t think he’s recommending we cover our core with skimpy identity G-strings, though. The idea is to be an identity minimalist.
Curate something similar to my packing list: a select collection of high-quality, long-lasting, and versatile identities. But never get too attached to any item and always be on the lookout for upgrades.
You’ve probably worn some identities for so long that they’ve grafted to your core personality. And you may offend others by discarding some identities that they continue to proudly wear.
So if you choose to stick with some identities even though they aren’t a perfect fit for your personality, that’s understandable.
But, at the very least, start playing around at the margins. Even small identity changes can make big differences. And they may motivate you to eventually do a complete makeover that makes the most of the beautiful personality you’ve been born with.
Shoutout to printablepaperdolls.net for the images.
Try this on for size!
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