Crack open your identity

David Chapman has an excellent and evocative framework for understanding the complex mess society is currently in and how we might get ourselves out of it. It starts by mapping Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development onto the development of society and then delving into the specifics of how society is progressing and why we are collectively stuck at the places we are stuck at.

To atrociously oversimplify, agents (read: humans, communities, civilisations) go through a few distinct stages, and the last three (of Kegan’s five) roughly correspond to a premodern or tribal stage, a modern or systematic stage, and a metamodern or metasystematic stage. Between each is not an orderly linear progression, but an abrupt, incoherent, and traumatic fracturing of the previous belief system in order to make way for the new one, which generally contains the old one, but not vice versa. (Check out Thomas Kuhn’s excellent ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ if you want to be nosy about how this works specifically within the domain of scientific research.) Central to David’s thesis is the idea that in order to sustain a certain level of development, a society must contain a sufficient number of sufficiently developed people, and that because the current education system doesn’t facilitate certain shifts, we must be creative in developing our own. Venkat Rao of Ribbonfarm identifies this pattern on a more micro-iterative level, and prescribes an accelerating loop of existential crises and recovery to maximise personal growth.

I’m very pro the existential crisis as a vehicle for growth. I am, in fact, a little wary of people who purport to never having had any, seeing them as either sleepily naive or somewhat psychopathic. What ‘I’ve never had an existential crisis,’ (truthfully spoken and not just an attempt to save face) tells me, is that the speaker has held the same identity for a looooong time.

The pace at which your identity shifts is largely a function of how much novelty you throw at it, plus how much your environment constrains or enables rapid changes. This is why self-help gurus recommend moving as a means of changing yourself – in a new city, no one knows you as a vegan, or too loud and bossy, or as a non-technical manager, and you can rapidly evolve a new set of identity signifiers that build out a completely different social persona.

But building a new persona isn’t super helpful unless you’ve previously uncovered a new toolbox for making such changes. And unfortunately, the things we perhaps most -should- change are the things we most strongly cling to, and which are most fundamentally embedded into our sense of who we are. This is why, while shifting to a new city -can- improve your life, it can also easily allow the initial changes to melt back into your previous habitus because they aren’t fundamentally that different.

When I was in university, I had consistent trouble with a guy. Let’s call him Ludovico. This one dude managed to break my heart four times over about seven years, in largely similar ways, which is now, and was even at the time, an impressive length of time for me to be falling for the same dumb shit repeatedly. He had an intoxicatingly charismatic way of drawing me in to a pattern of beliefs that were delusional but just coherent enough to mimic something real, and during The First Time He Broke My Heart, the fallout from believing what he persuaded me to believe particularly troubled me.

Once I woke up from the fog of crying and angry journal entries and calmly tried to look at what had actually happened, the weirdest thing was not that he had disappeared for two weeks to Hong Kong or Singapore or something (and didn’t tell me before, after or during where he was or why he wouldn’t contact me). It was that when he said things like ‘most people aren’t intelligent enough to vote and we shouldn’t let them,’ and ‘it’s perfectly moral for me to steal from companies as long as no one finds out that I’m doing it,’ I found myself falling into agreement with him. Post-heartbreak me looked at what had happened, what I ended up believing via him and was chilled – how weak and jumbled-up was my belief system if I could let my love-drunk self determine what I considered right and wrong?

I realised I didn’t have a functional belief system and set out to fix that. Luckily, LessWrong.com was rapidly rising as the smartest place on the internet and I had just graduated university straight into the first of many quarter-life crises – so I had plenty of time on my hands. I inhaled the basic tenets of internet rationality from the source, and gobbled up utilitarianism and later, Effective Altruism as well. I enrolled in a postgraduate degree in a social science that actually has a unifying scientific paradigm (economics).

(I became heaps fun at parties.)

A sense of calmness descended on me with the knowledge that all of my existential questions could have One Right Answer if I just spent enough time figuring it out, and I collected a whole set of overly intellectual friends and internet mentors (read: bloggers) whose minds worked similarly. I really couldn’t see how anyone could read the core arguments of EA and not end up as an effective altruist.

Throughout this period my goal-setting process became more and more codified. A few years in there was a brief attempt to mathematise my personal utility function so I could work out the optimal amount of time to spend on pleasure versus useful projects. You may laugh, but I truly believed the best thing to do was to work to minimise suffering, and the idea of not directing all of my agency towards that filled me with immobilising guilt.

Developing a guilt complex is practically an Olympic sport in Effective Altruism. Sure, there are plenty who don’t succumb, but they often happen to be the ones who are winning at the status games and thus get all the right hits of dopamine for their monkey mind to continue playing. Garden-variety EAs, particularly women, can and often do become paralysed by the idea that they aren’t doing enough. I’m sure other ideologies have their own emotional hazards.

Around the time of my pseudo-spiritual conversion to rationality I was staying with a new friend in another city. We were talking about Reason and Intuition, those two big capitalised ideas that shape so much of our understanding of human thought in the Western world. I was arguing, at the time, that Intuition had nothing to offer that Reason didn’t already have, and moreover, that Reason, by design, was much more easily checked and debugged and was thus in every way superior as a way of making decisions. My friend, older than me and having gone through this breathlessly eager stage of development already, gave me many reasonable arguments for the use of Intuition that I was, sadly, not quite ready to hear at the time. But one of the things he said struck me as exciting then, and, like a good wine or cheese, has only become more complex and interesting as it has ripened over the years in my mind.

He described every trait, whether in personality or thought or something else, as sitting somewhere along a spectrum. Sometimes the spectrum is obvious (Left/Right; Reason/Intuition) and sometimes it’s unclear. But he said that for all the traits present in his mind and sense of self, the most fruitful growth had come from a process of nudging or bouncing to the other side of the spectrum and exploring and developing the skills that lie there. So as a reasonable scientific thinker, he jumped headfirst into mysticism and spirituality, and developed as much as possible the capacities involved. Where he lay on any given spectrum at any given moment was pretty irrelevant; the important thing was that with every (often tumultuous) shift, he was both stretching and balancing his psyche and at the same time releasing it from the grips of a predefined ‘identity’. The idea that I should investigate ideas on the very basis that my kneejerk reaction is to reject them was, at the time, both ridiculous and inspiring.

It becomes odd to call yourself a progressive or a libertarian when you can go to both progressive and libertarian parties, make arguments that are respected alongside the political canon, and have people mistake you for one of them. In the same vein, emotional intelligence is no longer a frightening thing for you, the mathsy/science person, if you’ve spent a bunch of time developing your ability to feel emotions, express them, and read them in others. This isn’t just a straightforward ‘work on your weaknesses’ recommendation, but a counterintuitive ‘invert your strengths’ – allowing you to expand the range of situations and environments you can comfortably thrive in.

Every attempt at maximisation along some measure is a trade-off of the resilience of diversity for the firepower of exploiting a particular niche. Lots of elements of Western society encourage this hyper-specialisation, but at the cost of undermining our ability to adapt when circumstances change. Preemptively stretching those unused adaptations is not only useful as a warm-up for environmental shocks, but also as a way of rocking your identity out of the calcified grip of systematic labeling. When you wriggle a nail that’s stuck in a hole, it doesn’t just move to the polar opposite of where it was originally. It also loosens its stuckness in the hole more generally, and each shift keeps loosening until one day the nail pops out into a whole new context not defined by the wood it was previously embedded in.

My counterbalancing ricochet was, over the course of a few years, into fiction, art, spirituality and beauty. I soon realised that as much as I intellectually believed in what EA stood for and the powerful claims the rationality community was making, it was making me sad, sick and a bit elitist. For a while, I ran headfirst into the other direction – spending my time based on how much pleasure it would give me, or how much beauty it would create; learning ballet, learning how to appreciate the nuances of poetry and fiction and making new friends who happened to find rationality lifeless and boring. Forcing myself (at least initially) into these microcultures and honestly appreciating them allowed me to loosen the hold the serious utilitarian worldviews had on me, and then slowly incorporate them back in as only some of the elements in an increasingly complex dance in my mind.

That process isn’t done yet, but the seeds are already bearing fruit. I’m able to return to ‘world-saving’ projects with a much better eye for how they will fit into the world (versus how fanciful they are). I’m a lot less susceptible to making decisions by spreadsheet that make me miserable, and in the process the version of me that decides what projects to get involved in has gained a lot of the trust of the spontaneous, social monkey-me who actually has to carry the work out. I like to think I’m now less of an asshole to people who think differently to me, and I’m definitely no longer afraid of getting stopped by Jehovah’s witnesses or people on the street collecting for charities that are less cost-effective than the Against Malaria Foundation (spoiler alert: all of them).

I should point out that this doesn’t mean I regret spending time as a hardcore utilitarian. I think for some fundamental traits and belief systems, trying out both extremes leads to a more nuanced centre of balance than never veering too far from the middle. Like a handbalancer, the skill is not in staying still, but in having the strength to hold unbalanced positions, survive them, and then from within them, return to balance. Going off balance (and falling down occasionally) is a necessary part of the process. It also helps you recognise how malleable, contingent and emergent belief systems can be and then eventually, when you’re ready, helps you fall out of them completely.

Kill your darlings, and not just the peripheral darlings that haven’t yet made it into the core of your being. If you want to expand your sense of who you are, and what you’re capable of, expand your capacity towards the opposite extremes you’re uncomfortable at, like ideological exposure therapy, until you no longer need to retreat to the comfortable side.

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