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The Born Identity

by Marshall Goldsmith

Much of our sense of self is determined by our past. If we want to make positive changes in our lives, we also need some sense of a future self — not the person we think we were, but the person we want to become. This tug of war between our past and future selves can leave heads spinning as we veer between the comfort of our past self and the unknown promise of a future self.

Four sources of our identity combine to influence our mojo, that positive spirit that starts from the inside and radiates to the outside.

1. Remembered identity: You remember life events that helped form your sense of self. But the further you go back into your past, the greater the chances that your remembered identity won’t match who you are today. The workplace is full of people who made mistakes in their past, but those errors do not necessarily pinpoint who they are now.

2. Reflected identity: This is where the past and other people’s opinions meet. Other people remember events in your past and they remind you of them, sometimes constantly via feedback. I rely on feedback to help people change for the better, so I would never disparage its value, but not all feedback is offered in good faith or in the most forgiving spirit. Even if your reflected identity is accurate, it doesn’t have to be predictive. We can all change.

3. Programmed identity: Programmed identity is the result of other people sending messages about who you are or will become in the future. Your programmed identity has many sources. It can be influenced by your profession, the culture you grew up in or the people you select as friends. Each can shape your opinion of yourself, but this can become a convenient scapegoat for our behavioral mistakes.

4. Created identity: Created identity is the part of our identity not controlled by our past or by other people. I am not naive. We all have real physical, environmental or mental limitations that we may never be able to overcome. We cannot wish physical reality away with positive thinking. But I am amazed at what we can change if we do not artificially limit ourselves.

Consider Bono, the lead singer of Irish mega-band U2, whom I happened to be seated next to at dinner one night. In his early years, Bono’s identity was that of a regular guy, a bloke from Dublin who liked hanging around with his mates. Then he became a rock ‘n’ roll fan and fell in love with music. Bono’s next identity was musician. He described how he made a commitment to his craft and how lucky he was to find something he loved to do.

Then he went from musician to rock star. He clearly liked being a rock star, the life, the fans and the access to influential people. He was still a regular guy, with a wife and four kids at home, but when he was in public, his identity was clearly rock star. Without being arrogant, he was smart enough to recognize this as an important part of his identity.

Bono also was forging a new identity as a humanitarian. He recounted his experience visiting Africa during the great famine of the 1980s. He talked about his lobbying of political leaders to reduce African debt and his desire to alleviate human suffering.

Many of us treat our identity as a fixed, immutable object that cannot be altered, and we never try to create a new one. One of the greatest obstacles there is to changing our lives is the paralysis we create with self-limiting definitions of who we are. All of us do this in some way. But when we define ourselves by saying we are deficient at something, we tend to create the reality that proves our definition.

My suggestion to you is simple. First, review the various components of your current identity. Where did they originate? Then, review them in the context of who you are today and who you would like to become in the future. If your present identity is fine with you, work on becoming a better version of who you are. If you want to make a change in your identity, be open to the fact that you may be able to change more than you originally believed that you could. Assuming you do not have incurable or unchangeable limitations, you, like Bono, can create a new identity for your future, without sacrificing your past.

Dr. Marshall Goldsmith was selected as one of the 10 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World by Thinkers50 in both 2011 and 2013. He was also selected as the World’s Most Influential Leadership Thinker in 2011. Marshall was the highest rated executive coach on the Thinkers50 List in both 2011 and 2013. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There was listed as a top ten business bestseller for 2013 by INC Magazine / 800 CEO Read (for the seventh consecutive year). Marshall’s exciting new research on engagement will be published in his upcoming book Triggers (Crown, 2015).