Back in 2012, I started looking into what digital culture is doing to our sense of identity. I was especially curious about how the Internet is affecting the interplay between identity and ambition. I’m talking about how our drive to become someone–to make something of our selves–might be transforming in a world more and more dominated by digital. Because if you think about it, our most cherished plans, careers, personal pursuits, and even our place on the map are all ambitions tethered to our sense of self.
All in all, the research consumed five years of my life. What took so long?
Well, my journey began with a deep dive into the canon of identity theory: I read Freud, Jung, Erikson, and Plato, to name a few. I also downloaded articles from scientific journals by the box-load. The gravitational pull of the web drew me to follow the lives of some bone-brilliant Millennials using popular social media platforms. About mid-way through the research, I gained access to a high-powered algorithm. At a clip it could analyze sentiments gathered from 30 million sources across 500,000 million daily posts.
Then it all got personal.
Much like the medical student who develops every illness she/he learns about, my own identity was tossed about in a tempest of life events and uncertainties. This led to a vague but progressive alienation from my previously held ideas about success and happiness. I’ll save that for another post.
As you might guess, I’ve learned many things. Here are a few that rise to the top:
- Some ambitions have more power than others to shape us.
Digital pulls us toward a different set of goals. Overall, three ambitions form the basis of selfhood in a digital age. First, is desire to harness our in-born gifts in the context of rapid change. Second is the desire to feel like a whole person—not a warped constellation of the personas that we produce and push out for audiences. The third is will to try—to take action in entirely new ways, despite uncertainty.
- We underestimate the effects of role ambiguity.
Role ambiguity occurs when people are confused about who they are expected to be and consequently how they should behave in a high-stakes situations—career, spouse, and parent roles come to mind. I found that role ambiguity is rampant in a changing world of work and family. It is also toxic to our identities. Worse, it has been proven to undo even the most elevated personal traits including self-motivation and work ethic. And yet, two important studies reveal that the type of self-doubt that arises from situations that call for aggressive innovation or reorganization also trigger profound role ambiguity.
- Emotionally capable people master change as a process.
The one universal trait shared by people who are good at managing big shifts in identity, is the ability to excel at change. I call it an edgepart—that facet of our personalities that is ambitious for change and resilient to trial. The mindset that big life changes are a process, rather than a crisis, also makes us far more fluid to explore better possibilities.
- The drive to innovate is morphing us in strange ways.
Over the last decade, innovation has become a global obsession. Whether it is in business, education, or social enterprise, the drive to innovate alters our personal sense of identity even if it’s happening in a collective situation such as a work place or community. The ripple effect of innovation is uncertainty, which can be internalized by the participants into paralyzing self-doubt.
- Becoming requires energy.
The will power to take actions that define us is a hungry type of drive. To make matters worse, it has a limited fuel supply. An over emphasis on low-priority issues depletes our will because the brain does not distinguish between the amount of energy needed to respond to a difficult email and the energy to up and quit your job and head in a different direction. In an age of distraction, our will to act on our ambitions can be whittled away deciding which photo to post on Facebook and what to tweet.
I have so much more to tell you. I promise, I intend to pursue the implications of my findings with a passion and share what’s most useful.
Stay tuned. And as always, thank you for following along.