Things owning you

Paul Graham has some advice—“keep your identity small.”

“The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Most people reading this will already be fairly tolerant. But there is a step beyond thinking of yourself as x but tolerating y: not even to consider yourself an x. The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”

As Graham rightly points out, politics is one method which people use to identity build. People support left- or right-wing policies and come to see themselves as left- or right-wingers. Another, equally and if not more potent, source of identity building is ownership. Personal example: our second bedroom is made up as a study and it houses all my books. My identity is thus tied up with owning a lot of books. Similar things happen to people who own homes, or own a particularly niche car, or buy-in to a particular product eco-system—Apple aficionados or Linux users for example. The things we own become a part of our identity.

This can become a risk. Graham says that identifying with a particular political outlook can make you dumber. So can owning things—not just physically, but on a deep emotional level. So while Graham proposes the heuristic, “Keep your identity small”, I propose another:

The less things you own, the less chance there is of things owning you.