So, everyone's got an identity. What you think you are, what you identify with, how you'd describe yourself.
This identity thing is a big deal in terms of how you see the world. If there's a clash between the world and your identity, you'll probably favor your identity over the world.
That's... not good, but it's almost everyone. A few people seem to dissolve their identity, or base it around a rather robust principle (like truth, in the pure abstract unfiltered form) - but that's incredibly rare.
So okay, you've got an identity, it affects how you react to the world, and if the world and your identity comes into conflict, your identity is probably going to win. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it's how things are.
Given that, it's really important to not have an "oppositional identity" - that's where you define a big part of who you are as what you're against.
Yesterday I excerpted a part of Wikipedia's article on scientific management to make fun of the Soviet Union.
"In the Soviet Union, Taylorism was advocated by Aleksei Gastev and nauchnaia organizatsia truda (the movement for the scientific organisation of labor). It found support in both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Gastev continued to promote this system of labor management until his arrest and execution in 1939."
There was a time when I actually felt really strongly that everything that the USSR stood for was really terrible for humanity, and must be opposed.
The problem is, when you've got an oppositional identity, it's very easy for you to wind getting jerked around and being reactive to anything that happens.
There's a couple discussion sites I visit. I see some people on there who are strongly anti-capitalism. Oh man, they're screwed. Every single day they're getting antagonized by all sorts of things. It constantly gets them off their game. There can be a nice article about Steve Jobs, or whatever, and they feel the need to speak up and decry some of it, because that's their identity.
It's obvious in that case, but maybe less obvious if you'e fighting something that's actually bad. Sure, XYZ Thing might be bad, but do you really want to base your identity off of being opposed to it? That's a rather limited narrow thing. And you're kind of in between a rock and a hard place, because either you'll be antagonized your whole life - or, God forbid, you actually wind up winning, but now a core part of who you are is obsolete. You'll celebrate and be happy a little bit, but a year later? Two years? Five years?
There's better things to build around than opposition. Just focus on your own game, do your thing, don't get off your game when you see something - even if it is something stupid, and it would be better if the stupid thing was defeated.
It's easier to be against something than for something because when you're against something, it's difficult for people to attack you for it. Being for something requires you to establish yourself with clear certainty while being against something gives you some wiggle room as to what you are actually for. You're safer from criticism that way.
On the other hand, I don't think Sebastian's argument against oppositional identity is very strong here. What if for example, one were to be for something. Let's say... universal sufrage. What if one were to achieve that? Likely the same outcome as described above. So, I don't see the difference here.
The way I see it, it's easier to establish yourself through an "oppositional identity" than it is to play your own game. I don't know why that is.
Maybe it's more entertaining - like rooting for the underdog.
Maybe it's our desperation -needing to feel that we have a voice, how we can show the world our uniqueness and that we _matter_ to the world.
Maybe it's that it's just easier to find external validation, than it is to generate it ourselves.
I liked Paul Graham's take on it. Great quote: "There may be some things it's a net win to include in your identity. For example, being a scientist. But arguably that is more of a placeholder than an actual label—like putting NMI on a form that asks for your middle initial—because it doesn't commit you to believing anything in particular. A scientist isn't committed to believing in natural selection in the same way a bibilical literalist is committed to rejecting it. All he's committed to is following the evidence wherever it leads.
Considering yourself a scientist is equivalent to putting a sign in a cupboard saying "this cupboard must be kept empty." Yes, strictly speaking, you're putting something in the cupboard, but not in the ordinary sense."
I came across your site a few days ago after a friend posted a link to your "What Skills Do You Need to be an Entrepreneur? Only Two" article. While I've read many different blogging sites about similar topics, there was something about your writing that has compelled me to stay on your site and read through dozens of your articles. In fact, of all the sites/blogs I have read, you are the first I have attempted to contact. You seem like a really interesting guy, and you have certainly inspired me.
Anyways, I read in one of your works that you aren't much a fan of small talk (nor am I), so I'll cut straight to my questions:
What are you thoughts on Ayn Rand? Have you read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead? The reason I ask is because a lot of your writing seems to reflect some of the core points of her philosophy, at least on an individual perspective (as portrayed in The Fountainhead). I'm not sure how you feel about her philosophy for a society as a whole, as in Atlas Shrugged.
If you've never read her before, here is a good excerpt of her thoughts on money (to get an idea of what her books are like):http://www.capitalismmagazine.com/economics/money/1826-francisco-s-money-speech.html
When I lost my sequined hat, which I wore nearly every day for three years, I felt out of place. I was the guy who wore the sequined hat, and now part of my identity was most likely in the hands of an unscrupulous backpacker in Panama. But really, I had been getting sick of the hat. It wasn't overly functional, had shed enough sequins that it was starting to look ratty, and was a vestige of my clubbing days. All that didn't change that it had become part of my identity, though. The same could be said about my recent decision to stop being a vegan. It was a comfortable identity for me. Some people saw me as a positive example of veganism. Deciding to eat meat would be an admission that I had been wrong and had given suboptimal advice to my readers. That's a bitter pill to swallow, and I could feel my subconscious fighting to maintain its identity; the battle for consistency over optimization.
Fortunately I've been able to couple my identity to a few key values, rather than staunch positions on issues. I value doing the best thing for myself and others, I value finding the truth over being the one who had it to begin with, I value health, I value independence and freedom, and I value productivity. My means of expressing and embracing these values are different now than they were a few years ago, and I have every reason to expect that they'll continue to morph as I progress through my life.
Staying exactly the same is the opposite of growth. If you want to develop yourself, you must be willing to have a fluid identity, deriving your value and satisfaction from what you're currently doing and planning on doing, rather than from what you've done. It's not always easy, which just might be an indicator that it's the right thing to do.