The map: who are you? where are you going?

This article is part of a series about a new (and yet old) way to interact with the world. In the first article in the series, I gave a brief description of identity and why it's important to take charge of your own identity.

You may wish to review the summary of the first article.  These concepts aren't simple, but understanding them is well worth your time.

Let's expand on the brief description of identity in the previous article.  First, why should you care? What is so important about identity? How does identity differ from "self?" And how can you benefit from this new understanding?

Why should I care about this?

You're reading this because you want a bright future. Having a high degree of satisfaction in your future, rather than psychological distress, depends on how well prepared you are.

Complete the sentence: "Fortune favors the _______." That's where you and I want to be, in that blank right there. Bold. Brave. Strong. Similarly, Louis Pasteur said, "In the fields of observation chance favours only the prepared mind."

A bold person is willing to take risks. A prepared mind is ready to leap onboard before the train of opportunity leaves the station. On the road of life, to succeed requires having a good map and knowing how to use it.

The map to your future is your identity.

This map metaphor involves a special kind of map. I'm not referring to an atlas or a map on the wall that can be useful decades after it's printed. We're talking about a map like a battlefield map or the one in your GPS app. These maps need to be constantly updated because the trail conditions are in constant flux.

Life can change in a heartbeat. In fact, the more stable your life seems right now, the more likely you'll be needing a good map in the near future. The past is not a reliable way to determine the future.In a future post I'll explain why it's unrealistic to base our expectations of the future on recent events. If you don't want to wait, try googling "regression to the mean."

OK, what do I need to know about my identity? It doesn't seem that complicated to me.

I described some of what identity encompasses in the overview article, so I won't go into those attributes again. But there's more.

You're not just an individual. You're also a dividual, and you have multiple selves. Don't take my word for it:

We're not horsing around here

I like the way Christine Korsgaard, Harvard Professor of Philosophy, put it: "We each have an animal identity as well as our more specifically human identity and...  some of the most important problems of personal integration come from this fact."Korsgaard, Christine. 1989. Personal identity and the unity of agency: A Kantian response to Parfit. Philosophy and Public Affairs 18, no. 2: 101-132. Note: I don't believe in quoting philosophers, no matter how eloquent, to prove a point.  But I really like some of her reasoning, and it goes along with the evidence-based material I've found elsewhere.

This is why I chose the horse metaphor. "Problems of personal integration" are so common, they are universal. Ask yourself: What guides my choices and decisions? Is it my emotions? Is it my friends, relatives, workmates? Is it my willpower? Is it my intentions? Is it me? Is it someone else? Is it someone inside me? Is it my past?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

We need a way to separate this crowd of influences enough to sit them down and get them to work together. That's what I'm explaining to you here.

A horse is a horse, of course, except when it's not

The horse represents our "animal identity." It's the experiencing self. It's very simple, but so many people have trouble understanding the concept. Why did I eat that chocolate cake when I said I wouldn't? Why did I spend more than my budget last month? Why can't I control my temper?

It starts with understanding the problem. We're angry and ashamed of ourselves when the problem was simply that we failed to keep a hold of the reins. We'll cover this in more depth later.

Korsgaard continues, "One might say, a little extravagantly, that the growing human animal is disciplined, frustrated, beaten, and shaped until it becomes a person - and then the person is faced with the task of re-integrating the animal and its needs back into a human life." 

That's what we're discussing here. We're not covering horse training just yet, but we need to understand the "animal" part of our identity or we'll miss the entire point of what identity does.

Other aspects of identity

Personal identity

Most of the time when we talk about identity we are referring to a concept known as personal identity.  It's the sum of the things that make an individual unique.  Some scholars include experiences, such as our feelings, as part of our personal identity.  

Social identity

This includes all of a person's group memberships and all the social roles that she might play. Social identity theory hypothesizes that group members seek to enhance their self-image by looking for negative aspects of those outside the group.

Expectations associated with social identity influence our behavior.  For example, a person who identifies as an athlete will train harder than someone who simply has a goal to get in better shape.  Deciding to become an athlete amounts to writing something new on our own identity (map).  Also, whether we are aware of it or not, others constantly influence us, helping us write our identity.

Practical identity

This phrase seems to be Korsgaard's creation.While "practical identity" sounds a little like a buzzphrase to me, it gets the point across.    She defines this identity as a function of personal agency, that is, free choice.This concept - personal agency - seems to me to be synonymous with the Freudian concept of ego. We serve as personal agents when we navigate the space between our drives and desires (Freud's id, the horse in my analogy) and the demands of society (superego).  The practical identity is composed of informed choices the individual makes according to his values.  He acts "out of a conscious endorsement of the reasons underpinning the given action and not simply on blind impulse or desire."Walker S., McMillan J. (2017) Memory, Identity and Dementia. In: Schramme T., Edwards S. (eds) Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine. Springer, Dordrecht. I discovered Korsgaard's take through this route.  I especially appreciate the way the authors of this paper elucidate her position.

This is the identity I am advocating by means of this many selves/horse ride analogy.  Understanding our varying roles (many selves) and using that information to make informed choices can improve your life and mine. To the extent the individual chooses goals, values, and ideals for himself, to this extent he has a truly unique identity.

What's the difference between identity and "sense of self?"

Academics struggle to answer this question because it's difficult to know exactly what we're comparing. I think my metaphor will make it clearer than any dictionary definition. Take the example earlier of the printed wall map vs. your pocket GPS. The GPS is updated frequently, so it's much more likely to give you accurate guidance when you need it most. But the wall map will help you get a better overall idea of the terrain. They are both different ways of looking at the same thing.

Some people consider identity to be the outward-facing, more stable side, and self-concept to be the part which changes moment by moment. But for my purposes they are the same thing.

In these essays I'll be using "identity" synonymously with self-concept, because I'm focusing on "practical identity," as defined above. There are some aspects of our identity that we can't really control: who are family members are, our disabilities, some of our quirks of personality. Outsiders will make judgments about us based on these, and to a degree we have no control over that.

It's best to focus on what we can control, because that part of our identity will soon eclipse the other parts in the minds of all the people that really matter.

Don't make a wrong turn

The reason it's important to make this distinction is because we need to get used to seeing our identity as a shifting, fluid entity rather than a stable one. To illlustrate, consider my a real life map experience:

I was driving through an unfamiliar part of town using an old GPS app that hadn't been recently updated. As I followed its direction and turned onto a side street, I heard someone behind me honk. I was momentarily irritated until I observed four lanes of traffic ahead of me, all coming my direction. Fortunately I had an opportunity to pull onto another side street before I came close enough to the oncoming traffic.

I learned an important lesson that day about keeping my GPS updated (and also about watching for road signs more carefully). Obviously, the road department had changed the way traffic was routed in that part of town, and I could have paid a heavy price for my error.

Likewise, failing to keep up to date with our shifting identity can put us in an awkward position.

Hazel Rose Markus and Paula Nurius have given a lot of thought to this concept.  Here's how they contrast self-concept with the traditional concept of identity. Notice it makes the same point I made above:

The content of the working self-concept depends on what self-conceptions have been active just before, on what has been elicited or made dominant by the particular social environment, and on what has been more purposefully invoked by the individual in response to a given experience, event, or situation.... The sociologist's concept of identity cannot be used as a basis for competent performance because it is much too stable and removed from the demands and constraints of the moment-to-moment situation.Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954.  This appears to be the seminal work on the subject.  I found many derivative studies that I'm looking through for more insights.

So to really get an accurate picture of ourselves (our selves), we need to look at our self-concept map moment to moment rather than trying to see an overall picture. Markus and Nurius elaborate further:

Many of an individual's self-conceptions are images of the now or current selves; they describe the self as it presently is perceived by the individual. Other self-conceptions, however, are possible selves. These may be past selves that no longer characterize the self, but under some circumstances could be relevant again, or they may be future selves, images of the self that have not yet been realized but that are hoped for or feared.

Korsgaard concurs: "When the person is viewed as an agent, no clear content can be given to the idea of a merely present self."  In other words, agency - "practical identity" - means being concerned about the future, not just the present. 

Future selves: the new territory on the map

You can probably remember a time when you had a "future self," a single ideal role, in mind for yourself.  I recall at various times in my childhood  wanting to be an astronaut, an inventor, or a writer when I grew up. "Future selves" is a healthier way to consider potential roles since we aren't limited to just one. 

What, though, if we become attached to one single possible future role, one ideal self?

The NPR show Invisibilia devoted an episode to considering this possibility.  It's a fascinating but tragic account of a teacher who thought he knew what was best for his students. 

In the episode Hanna Rosin interviews Daphna Oyserman, psychology professor at the University of Southern California.  Oyserman herself has interviewed hundreds of adolescents about their imagined future selves.  After one of the teacher's students committed suicide, Oyserman remarked, "He made a classic error, pinning the kids to such a specific and singular version of their future self that anything else seemed like failure."

Rosin admonishes the audience:

There are no shortcuts, no magic keys that can unlock your amazing, new, future self because maybe there just isn't one single future self.

It's more like a dance you have to do with lots of future selves. And you can't hold on to anyone too tightly. And you might even consider the idea that you don't need any future self - that 10 years from now, you could be more or less who you are, just a little older. And that's fine.

She should know.  Co-host Alix Spiegel asks Rosin who her future self was.  Rosin replies, "It's just someone who didn't live in Queens."

OK, but what's in it for me?

Now that we know what goes on the map, it's time to get ours out and start drawing.  How can this knowledge improve your life?

Start seeing yoursel(ves)

First of all, try to start catching yourself whenever you think about the future, positive or negative.  Try to see yourself in a role.  This might not be easy at first, but with practice it will become more natural. 

Maybe you are excited about a possibility.  You made a new friend with lots of connections, and he might be willing to introduce you to someone who can advance your career.  Try to imagine what that would be like. 

Or maybe you're worried about something.  You have a big payment coming due and you don't have enough to pay it, and you don't know where you'll get the money. It may not be fun, but try to imagine the different ways the situation can play out.  Do you picture yourself being thrown in jail?  Probably not.  What possible future selves can you imagine?  The more the better, because you can begin to take steps either to reach your goal or to avoid the bad outcome.

There are many ways you can do this. 

  • Keep a journal, and write as many future selves as you can think of, at the top of each page.
  • Keep a file and add a dated entry whenever a new hope or fear comes to mind.
  • Benjamin Hardy suggests drawing a circle with your name in the center and listing your dreams in all areas of life as a series of expanding bubbles. 
  • I'd love to hear your ideas.

Try to group your hopes and fears together as much as possible and look for patterns.  Do any overlap?  For example, do you see that more than one of your hopes involve the same prerequisite?  Will you need training?  Will you need to find the right person to help? 

If this step would bring you closer to more than one of your hoped-for future selves, why not start working on it right away?

A caution

Before you go too far, make sure you counteract your fears or hopes with some opposite thinking.  While you plan out your future self, make sure to put on your black hat and think about possible consequences.  What might get in your way of accomplishing your goal?  What might happen as an unintended consequence of reaching your goal?  

Few of us enjoy thinking about negative possibilities, but the head-in-the-sand approach won't help you avoid undesirable outcomes. First of all, as you carefully write out every possibility you can think of for things going wrong, you might find out things aren't as bad as you had feared. 

In any case, after you're done listing all the feared future selves (going to jail, going bankrupt, working as a janitor, losing your girlfriend, etc.), take a careful look at the list and put on your yellow hat. Just as there are always potential consequences to getting what we want, there are always potential upsides to bad news.  Look for the silver lining.

Choose your own identity

Here's another powerful way to use the map to improve your life.  James Clear's bestselling book, Atomic Habits, focuses on the role of identity in changing behavior.  While most of us try to change our behavior by setting goals, Clear points out that this is much less effective than starting new habits.  And the most effective way to effect behavior change is to tie it to your identity.

Clear writes, "It’s important to let your values, principles, and identity drive the loop rather than your results. The focus should always be on becoming that type of person, not getting a particular outcome." Remember the athlete example above?  Just be aware that, according to identity theorist Sheldon Stryker, the more important the identity, the more it is in need of validation.Stryker, S. (1984). Identity theory: Developments and extensions. In (Chair), Self and social structure, Conference on self and identity. Symposium conducted at the meeting of the British Psychological Society, University College, Cardiff, Wales.

Challenge yourself

At the top of the article, when you were thinking, "Fortune favors the bold," where did you see yourself?  Did a possible future self come to mind?  Do you have an impossible dream?  Why is it impossible?  What about a scaled-down version?  I read the other day that the best level to operate at for optimum improvement is four percent higher than what you're comfortable with.  Can you find a way to move toward a new identity that's just beyond your reach?

When you do, make sure you keep careful track of your progress.  What if you fail?  Great!I'm not being sarcastic.  The road to success is paved with failures.  Keep track of why that happened and try again.  Use what you learned from your failure to improve your next effort.

This is your map.  Make sure to add lots of personal touches in the margins.  It's your new identity.  It will constantly have room for you to fill in areas of unexplored territory, and you'll have lots of exciting past and future selves to add to the map.  Or you can decide to just be who you are.  That's ok too.  Either way, you'll need the map.

To make best use of the map you'll need help from two of your other selves.  The next article in the series will discuss the very important narrating self.


  • We can craft our own identity.
  • For best results, our identity should be:
    • based on our own values and principles rather than the opinions of others
    • frequently updated
  • There are at least three types of identity:
    • physical
    • social
    • practical
  • Understanding our separate "selves" will help us separate the many factors that influence our lives and respond appropriately
  • Applying the practical suggestions above will improve your life in many ways