The Identity Viewsletter                  
Issue Thirty | July 2016
The problem with "identity" 
(Fixing it is up to you)

Do you know what the word of the year was in 2015? It was "identity" according to Dictionary.com.

Directly or indirectly, I've been writing about matters of identity for a long time, both personal and organizational. So, you'd think I'd be thrilled with this little revelation. Not so much. Here's why ...

The notion of identity has become front page news: Whether it's gender identity (Think Caitlin Jenner and other transgender individuals), ethnic identity for people whose sense of self revolves around their nationality or the color of their skin, political identity as in what it means (or doesn't mean), say, to be the Republican or Democratic Party, or religious identity among those who define themselves based on being born-again Christians, Orthodox Jews, or the only true Muslims.

Why has identity become a hot topic today? Why was "identity" the word of the year in 2015? Chalk it up to the new individualism -- a world where we've become keenly aware of, and more vocal about what defines us, thanks to the opportunity social media has unleashed to publicly assert yourself. (Ironically, despite its many blessings, social media has contributed to the problem by enabling people to create "identities" which may have nothing to do with who they really are.)

Why does personal identity matter? Because it fuels not simply a sense of who you believe you are, but as a result, the choices you make such as where to work, whom to call a friend (or enemy), and indeed which political candidate gets your vote.

Taken together, our identity-centric lives are coalescing into potent, new communities demarcated by beliefs, both spoken and unspoken, that increasingly influence how well society functions -- or doesn't -- economically, socially and politically.

So, what's the problem?

For all the attention this "identity trend" is receiving, it reinforces an impression that actually diminishes rather than expands upon what it means to be fully human. Indeed, the notion of "identity politics" undermines the deeper meaning of human identity.

Is the fact that you identify as a Hasidic Jew, an African-American, or a gay man or woman the most important definition of who you are? I don't believe so. What defines who you are goes beyond these descriptors.

The actual 'problem with identity' may be a matter of meaning. As the word of the year in 2015, 'identity' suggests the timeless fact that we all long to belong. We yearn to tie ourselves to a group, a tribe, a community we can call our own. But that isn't the deepest meaning of the word. 

What I've learned over more that three decades is that your essential identity -- your distinctive, value-creating characteristics -- springs naturally from the core of your being, a place that is blind to classifications, transcending gender, ethnicity, religion, and every other label we adopt as a way to locate ourselves in the world. You are simply you: unique and powerful in your own right. 

With this in mind, identity's 2015 "word win" may reflect the sobering fact that it was the most used, least understood term out there. 

When your definition of identity is based upon a descriptive label rather than the special contribution you're capable of making as an individual, you short-change yourself, those you care most about, and society as a whole. Why? Because, to paraphrase a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, you leave your music inside.

How you can help fix the identity problem

It's pretty simple. To borrow another quote from Holmes, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."

Don't let the pull of labels or social media distract you from tapping into and applying your innate identity to your life. Everyone will benefit including your co-workers, your friends, your children, your spouse or partner and, most of all, you.

If you're a coach, coach your clients to their core, and then from their core. If you're a consultant to organizations or an executive within one, crack the code on the company's identity to reveal its purpose and increase the odds of long-term success.

At bottom, having a clear sense of identity is the key to shaping a life marked by authenticity and integrity -- knowing what to do, what not to do, and why.

Here's one more quote for you to consider. It's from British artist, illustrator and teacher, Evelyn Mary Dunbar: "We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light."

I hope you agree.

So, what's your identity? Weigh in at Identity Beacon

P.S. My new logo. In case you hadn't noticed, it's changed. There's a story here, and it's yours. In short, the new mark visualizes an "identity circle" -- something we're all born into but aren't necessarily aware of. In the middle of the circle is you. Around you are the five relationships we all engage in as adults: Work, family, spouse or partner, friends, and community. Bringing your best "you" into all of those relationships is the goal. And everyone benefits. (PPS: If you're not yet working and/or don't have a significant other, substitute school for work and best friend for spouse/partner. It's still your identity circle!)
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Larry Ackerman

"Identity's 2015 "word win" may reflect the sobering fact that it was the most used, least understood term out there."

Want to get a handle on your value-creating potential? 
Go to Identity-Based Living and read about the Identity Discovery Deck

Larry helps
individuals and organizations thrive. He offers personal coaching, workshops, and self-guided tools to help people build fulfilling, successful lives -- and strategy development for companies seeking greater brand impact and employee engagement.