Paul Graham – Keep Your Identity Small
Who Is Paul Graham?
Paul Graham is an essayist, author, computer scientist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist. He is the co-founder of the influential startup accelerator company Y Combinator.
Back in 2009, Paul Graham wrote a short and fascinating essay called ‘Keep Your Identity Small’.
This snappy little piece of writing offers up supermarket-loads of food for thought. There are lessons a-plenty in ‘Keep Your Identity Small’. These lessons can massively improve your life if you apply them to yourself and to the people you meet as you navigate the social world.
These lessons can also offer humanity a way out of many of the potentially lethal quandaries it currently finds itself in.
Politics and Religion Often Yield Useless Discussions
Why do conversations about topics such as politics and religion so frequently descend into unproductive arguments?
The answer is that people identify with their opinions about politics and religion. People see their political and religious opinions as a core part of their identity.
Mistaking Subjective Opinion For Truth
People feel no need to have any actual expertise in the areas of politics or religion to have deeply held, and passionately defended, opinions about them. People conflate their baseless opinions with THE TRUTH.
But in emotive areas like politics and religion every Tom, Dick, and Harry has an opinion!
Unfortunately, what matters in conversations about politics and religion is opinion. No matter how baseless these opinions may be! And more often than not, unfortunately and tragically, facts take a backseat.
Because objective truth is very difficult to discover in areas such as religion and politics, all opinions are insisted to be equal. Very often, even patently irrational, unreasonable and ridiculous opinions are given undeserved respect in these areas.
Strong convictions and gut instincts are what people base their arguments on in the realms of politics and religion, not facts.
The problem with ‘hot button’ topics such as politics and religion is that people allow their ideas in these areas to become their identity. Most people passionately identify with their political and religious ideas.
People are often viciously partisan in these areas.
Baseless (and often obviously barmy) beliefs, held close to the heart and passionately considered a core component of one’s identity… this is a recipe for disaster.
No Objective Truth = No Hurt Feelings
Because people are so identified in these areas, representing different ideas and teams as if their lives depended on it, society concludes that all ideas in these areas must be considered equally valid and good.
People buy into the mistaken notion that there are no truths to be found in these areas because all is subjective. Nobody’s beliefs should be criticised, and no people’s feelings should be hurt… so let’s all pretend that truth doesn’t exist and that all ideas are equally valid!
Ego Identification (and The Ruthless, Violent Ignorance It Breeds) Is a Cancer That Is Killing Humanity
This outlook breeds ignorance. It breeds intellectual laziness. And it allows bad, and often extremely harmful, ideas to fester and propagate. Shitty ideas don’t get challenged and dismantled.
When people wear their beliefs as an identity… violence tends to ensue. When people are savagely determined to defend their identities… ignorance and bloodshed are inevitable.
This state of affairs is very difficult to remedy. Because the vast majority of humans hold their beliefs passionately and baselessly. And the vast majority of human beings are unable to think critically and are deeply identified with their baseless beliefs.
The Solution – Keep Your Identity Small
The solution is to keep your identity small. Cease to be emotionally invested in your opinions and beliefs. Be willing to be proven wrong and to change your mind when necessary.
Enjoy having your mind changed. Cultivate self-love and self-esteem enough that you do not need to prop up a weak identity with membership of some team, or cult. Or blind devotion to some doctrine.
A small identity is a strong identity, because it is not dependant on factors that are external to you – such as political and religious doctrines – being true.
A small identity helps you to be calm, loving, peaceful, and to grow wiser every day. When you have a small identity that is not dependant on any opinion or belief being true, you can enjoy a huge and wide open mind that is always growing in wisdom and grace, drinking in the world with wild abandon, unencumbered by defensiveness or dread.
It is surely too much of a stretch to see humanity as a whole actualizing and developing to the point where all or even most people will be able to keep their identity small and enjoy healthy, calm, rational and open minds.
But as individuals, we can certainly be the change we want to see in the world. If we can cultivate small identities and lead by example, perhaps humanity can become at least somewhat healthier and less self-destructive… one enlightened, open, non-identified mind at a time.