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Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Being, and the road to Becoming

As I spend much of my time reading, getting deeper into my PhD work which revolves around the concept of identity, I feel like I'm re-considering many ideas that feel vaguely familiar, as if at one time I was convinced of their truth based on pure intuition.  A pretty amazing thing about studying identity is that at every turn of a page you're forced to reconsider the very essence of yourself, how you understand yourself, how you see yourself in relation to the world around you, and how you are evolving.

It turns out that (social) identity is somewhat malleable: it can change and fluctuate over time, it is influenced by the social environment we are born into -- a social environment whose philosophies and social practices have been mutually reinforcing for centuries.  I'm tempted to talk about different social universes, because it seems that most people never break out of the one they're born into.  Having traveled extensively for a decade, I'm only now coming to understand the true magnitude of social structures and their implications for our everyday life.  Richard E. Nisbett's The Geography of Thought is currently blowing my mind...

The Western-style self is virtually a figment of the imagination to the East Asian. As philosopher Hu Shih writes, "In the Confucian human-centered philosophy man cannot exist alone; all action must be in the form of interaction between man and man." The person always exists within settings -- in particular situations where there are particular people with whom one has relationships of a particular kind. -- and the notion that there can be attributes or actions that are not conditioned on social circumstances is foreign to the Asian mentality. 

... To the Westerner, it makes sense to speak of a person as having attributes that are independent of circumstances or particular personal relations.  This self -- this bounded, impermeable free agent -- can move from group to group and setting to setting without significant alteration.  But for the Easterner (and for many other peoples to one degree or another), the person is connected, fluid, and conditional.  As philosopher Donald Munro put it, East Asians understand themselves "in terms of their relation to the whole, such as the family, society..." ... purely independent behavior is usually not possible or really even desirable. 

Sometimes this identity we have, our deepest understanding of ourselves, falls prey to false promises. We decide who we want to become, and we look around for tools that will help us in the "becoming" process.  Those tools and roads to becoming aren't always healthy, and many are dead ends.  The idea that the route to success is primarily and invariably via "hustling" is one of those false promises. We might think that maintaining momentum, shunning stillness, and keeping busy at all costs is a sure way to get more stuff done and faster. But it's a lie. A constant, overarching determination to "hustle" will put you on the road to burnout.

I've learned one major lesson this year.  It's been a year of no blogging.  It's been a year of experimentation. A year of recovering my short-term memory.  A year of rebuilding my immune system. A year of arriving to work at 8, coming home at 6, rarely working nights and weekends, and learning that this is normal and healthy, and that I am not a slacker.  It's been a year of rest. A year of rebalancing.

I learned that there is a time to hustle and a time to take things slower.  I learned that more activity does not necessarily mean more productivity.  

This excerpt from a recent Huffington post piece is brutal and honest.

Hustling misplaces identity.

Hustling makes us feel important. It makes us feel like the world needs us -- like somehow we are more valuable or valid when busy. Perhaps that's why we wear it like a badge and quickly resort to it when people ask how life is. We hustle to subconsciously feel valuable to the world around us.

This glorification of "the hustle" comes from the antiquated belief that we are defined by what we do -- and therefore the more we do, the better, more worthy, more respectable, more validated human we are.

Sadly, this points to an ignorance of our inherent value--in that regardless of our performance in life, we are important, loved and valuable. This same ignorance typically makes us too uncomfortable with ourselves or the reality of our lives to do anything other than stay occupied hustling.

Unfortunately for the hustlers, there's more to life than how many hours we invest into our jobs. And increasingly, your neighbors and your relatives and your offspring are wondering why you're spending so much time trying to prove yourself and so little time being yourself.

For me, being myself rather than proving myself looks like making Christmas cookies for neighbors next weekend rather than trying to craft a glorious year-end newsletter.  It looks like being able to talk about work-in-progress without being afraid that my ideas aren't good enough, that I'm not good enough.
One of my cousins, a fellow nomad who always seems to be travelling a parallel intellectual journey, is currently enrolled in a 10-month counseling training program in San Francisco.  This week he wrote about the freedom we can find in questioning our identity.

Having models for how, who, and what we are can both serve and limit us. Fortunately, once we realize that we perpetuate the existence of these constructs in our lives through cooperation, we also recognize our ability to change them if needed.

It’s discombobulating not knowing how, who, or what I am. But it’s also exhilarating to realize that I still exist even apart from the many associations I've hung my reality on. Maybe I am much more than the answers I come up with to these questions.

If I don’t cling to the who I think I am, then I can be empty – in this emptiness, there’s a lot of mystery; maybe mystery is more beautiful than the self I have constructed.

You can read the full post on his blog.

As the year 2015 draws to a close, we might consider who we want to be and how we want to change in the year to come.  Hopefully this will be followed by some experimentation over the next few months to test what thought processes, actions and habits are useful vehicles on the road to our "becoming".  


  1. This is one of those intersections of sociology, psychology and philosophy that really has the the power to change one's life. In addition to Nisbett, who else have you been reading?

  2. I find interesting that in some asian cultures, life assessment become a daily habit instead of questioning only in difficult moments.
    I think it is good to boost creativity through small changes every day.
    I think that in the near future, the big increase in productivity would come from a better interaction with smarter machines or algorithms where many repetitive and dumb tasks would be automated.


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