Although I’ve a great deal of respect for bright Gen-Yers like Mark Zuckerberg, a quote of his tells me that when it comes to personal identities, Zuckerberg is not too bright. You may have read his quote in Time: "Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity." Like a number of techies, he’s dumb about people. Michael Zimmer, a well-known information ethicist at the University of Wisconsin, put it this way: Zuckerberg has a history of speaking his mind . . . and what he says is often “fraught with problems, ignorance, and arrogance.” Like a few others I know in the tech field, Zuckerberg needed that Harvard liberal arts degree to learn how to think beyond bits and bytes.
But his attitude toward personal identity is a very common mistake. Indeed, I suspect that his belief on personal identity, what the unwashed herd calls the “real me,” is widely held. I’ve had numerous conversations with those, even PhDs, who thought you could peel back the layers and find out who you really are. But if you’re looking for an analogy for peeling back the layers, the best one for us all is the onion. Eventually, when you peel back far enough, you’ll find there’s nothing there. To quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there there.
If we only have one identity, we’re in luck if business needs that identity. But when that identity is no longer needed, we’re in deep shit. And, by the way, that’s exactly what’s happened to millions of single career American workers. It shouldn’t take much to figure out that the notion of a single identity (which, I assume, equals a single career) is not just damaging. In today’s economy it’s liable to leave you out on the streets
It’s not that I’m trying to be cute about all this. But as Curt Sittenfeld put so well in his opinion article, Zuckerberg believes we should all be the same in every context. He’s got to be kidding. I’m not the same person to my kids, my wife, or my neighbors, much less that monstrous variety of friends and clients.
So let’s think a bit deeply about personal identity. And here, once more, I’m going to throw caution to the winds and dig into the sacred muck. Herminia Ibarra has summarized it best:
First, your working identity is not a hidden treasure (a passion) waiting to be discovered at the very core of your inner being. Rather, it is made up of many possibilities: some tangible and concrete, defined by the things we do, the company we keep, and the stories we tell about our work and lives; others existing only in the realm of future potential and private dreams. Second, changing careers (for example) means changing ourselves. Since we are many selves, changing is not a process of swapping one identity for another but rather a transition process in which we reconfigure the full set of possibilities. These simple ideas alter everything we take for granted about finding a new career. They ask us to devote the greatest part of our time and energy to action rather than reflection, to doing instead of planning.
This issue continues to surface regularly and in a number of forms. In a previous blog, I spelled out the research of Stanford’s Hazel Markus, and indicated that the notion of a true self--of a single identity--has been thoroughly dispelled by research. Several previous blogs call my readers to think twice before they follow their passion. But the passion issue has a lot of staying power, and seems stuck in the 1960s, even with bright guys like Mark Zuckerberg.