Diversify Your Identity

I don’t watch much TV, but if there were a channel that played Tony Robbins seminars non-stop, I’d watch it like teenage a girl glued to an America’s Next Top Model marathon. Say what you want about Robbins (opinions range from him being a complete hack and fraud to him being the second coming of Jesus Christ; my opinion is somewhere in the middle), but his seminars are never dull. The guy knows how to market helping people.

For the uninitiated, Robbins’ seminars have some informal portions where people in the (massive) audience are able to stand up and address their personal issues with Tony one-on-one, in a kind of private counseling session… in front of 2,000 other people. Tony manhandles their emotional worlds, reshaping their realities in front of your eyes, all to thunderous applause. Whether it’s genuine or not, it’s never boring, and it’s usually educational.

(A good friend of mine who is a psychologist and therapist refers to Robbins as the Batman of Psychology — sometimes he has to break the rules and do some unethical things, but it’s always for the greater good.)

In one seminar, a middle-aged man in the audience stood up and confessed that he was suicidal. He then shared his story: he was a finance guy, a very good finance guy. He made a fortune and not only that, but his friends and family members gave him their savings to manage and he made them fortunes as well. His entire life he had been successful and made a lot of people a lot of money.

And then one day he lost it all.

When prodded by Robbins, his reasoning for wanting to kill himself was that his life insurance policy would pay enough to support his wife and children after he was gone, whereas if he stayed alive, his family would be saddled by debt and left broke. When Robbins threw out the obvious point that while his kids would grow up with financial stability, they wouldn’t have a father, the man calmly asserted, “Yes, exactly. That’s the idea.”

What immediately strikes you is this man’s dumbfounding belief that his kids need financial stability more than a living father. And it’d be easy to discount him as a loony for that and be on our merry way.

But if we take a moment and empathize with him and dig a bit deeper into his motivation, we discover something important about his self-perception: This man perceives the value of his own life to be nothing more than financial.

He has no sense of value in himself as a father, husband, friend, companion, not to mention any other skills or hobbies. It’s not just that he thinks his kids would be better off with money than with him, it’s that he believes his only value as a person is his ability to make money.

Superhero Robbins quickly pounced on the nub of the issue: this man had never emotionally invested himself or identified with his roles as a father, a husband, a friend, a colleague — he had invested all of his identity (and time and effort) in making money and becoming rich. Then once his wealth vanished, so did his entire sense of self.

A while back, I saw a short video of Tim Ferriss and in passing he mentioned a concept called “identity diversification.” He more or less said the following:

When you have money, it’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything. It’s also smart to diversify your identity, to invest your self-esteem and what you care about into a variety of different areas — business, social life, relationships, philanthropy, athletics — so that when one goes south, you’re not completely screwed over and emotionally wrecked.

I loved this idea. It’s one of those ideas that’s so obvious yet elusive. When you hear it, it makes you feel like you just woke up. Identity diversification.

What Is Identity?

Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all choose what’s important to us; we choose what we value. We choose the measuring sticks with which we measure success and our self-worth. Common measuring sticks people often choose include: being professionally successful, being highly educated, making a lot of money, being an excellent father/husband, being pious and faithful in a chosen religion, being socially and/or sexually popular and desired, being physically attractive or beautiful, and on and on.

Whatever we choose to judge our self-worth by, be it how big of a fan we are for our favorite sports team or making more money than any of our friends or getting more attention from girls than the guys in our fraternity, we are choosing in which way we want to receive validation to feel good about ourselves. Like a mural, whatever you choose to value and receive validation from conglomerates into your overall identity.

Most of us naturally gravitate toward certain aspects of our identity merely through growing up and having attention or praise lavished on us for particular reasons. Maybe you were the smart kid, or the good-looking quarterback, or the popular musician, or whatever. The validation we receive growing up largely determines how we choose to value ourselves in our adult life.

Some of us also experienced emotional traumas early on and therefore many of us get fixated on certain aspects of our identity more than others. Social pressures can also force us into over-identifying with a certain aspect of our identity, which then drowns out other areas of our lives.

For instance, the movie Blow is a true story about drug smuggler George Jung. Jung grew up in a poor family with a father who had trouble paying the bills. As a result, Jung grew up identifying disproportionately with earning money and being rich and doing it in whatever way he could. Once he began smuggling drugs, the social pressures of those around him, the drug cartels and the lifestyle he lived continued to reinforce his choice to receive validation from money and wealth. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s fairly obvious that eventually his life unraveled along with all of the relationships which mattered to him.

In my own life, I over-identified with my sex life and the validation I received from women. This lead to me becoming depressed and living on a couch with no job. Later on, when I was building my business and often working 14-16 hour days simply to make a rent payment, a simple refund request or 2-3 days with no new sales could send me spiraling into a depression. Both of these examples from my life were times when I was investing myself completely into one area — women and business — and forsaking other important areas of my life and my identity.

In the case of the man in Robbins’ seminar, he lived an entire life that reinforced his identity as a man who could make money. He worked 100 hour weeks for decades. He made millions. Everyone who knew him, knew him as the man who could make money and did. Many of them knew him and liked him because he could make money.

This constant reinforcement and lack of diversity in his life eventually warped his perception in himself away from being a father, a husband, a friend, a role model, and instead a walking bank account. That’s all that came to matter to him and his identity. He had nothing else going for him because he never invested in any other aspects of his relationships. And when the money went, so did his self-worth along with it.

What Do You Care About?

One could take this advice as merely being a well-balanced individual. The problem is, people can be well-balanced but still not have a diverse identity. They can participate in a lot of different activities, but still derive the majority of their validation and self-worth from one source.

For instance, a well-balanced individual may have a successful law career, a wife, some golf buddies, and enjoy reading in his spare time. But in reality his career dominates his identity. He works so much that he has little to relate to his wife about other than work. His golf buddies are also lawyers. His reading relates to his career. He has no diversity.

This is the reason dating coaches notoriously have turbulent personal lives and often quit the industry within a few years of starting (as I did): they have no identity diversity. As soon as dating becomes their career, there’s no more division between their dating lives, business lives and social lives. It’s all one big mess. And if something goes wrong in their social life, it puts their business and love life at risk. A break up isn’t just a break up, it’s a PR problem. Meeting a guy at a bar isn’t just a social encounter, it’s a marketing opportunity. As a result, they experience a great deal of emotional instability. One of the only things that kept me sane during my stint as a coach was clearly separating my industry friends from my non-industry friends and making extra time to hang out with the latter. It was the only way I could get away from it all.

I’ve met finance guys who run into the same problem. Work dominates all of their time. Their friends are their co-workers. The books they read and movies they watch relate to their job. Their social excursions are work and networking functions. The women they meet are courted through expensive restaurants and VIP tables. There’s no diversification of where they’re receiving their validation. And therefore their emotional stability and self-esteem is at risk.

If you invest all of your identity in one basket, then you put your self-esteem and emotional well-being at risk.

American Football player Junior Seau recently committed suicide a few years after retiring. A lot of discussion has taken place about athletes and how they can regain their lost identity once they retire. One can’t imagine what they must feel, having gone their entire lives since childhood being recognized for being great at a single activity, and then once they hit their 40′s, it’s all taken away.

Seau is not the only casualty. There’s this heartbreaking article about Hall of Fame football player William “Refrigerator” Perry and his descent into depression and alcoholism after retirement. Or this excellent article on soccer legends Pele and Maradona and their inability to let go of their pasts. Or how about this one on Michael Jordan and his continued bitterness and insecurity after retirement?

Three years ago, the thought of my business going under terrified me. I stayed up entire nights worrying about if a new web page would make me money or not. When they didn’t I would lose sleep again trying to figure out why.

Ironically, now that I’m successful in business, my identity isn’t as invested in it, and if it failed tomorrow I don’t think I’d be as devastated now as I would have been three years ago. Why? Because I’ve diversified my identity. I’ve been around the world, speak multiple languages, have a wide array of friends of varying lifestyles, am a good musician, a successful writer — if my business crashed, it would surely suck and be stressful, but I imagine emotionally I would hold up much better.

What do you care about? I mean, what do you really care about? Invest yourself in a wide range of areas. If you like music, start attending concerts or learn an instrument. Don’t just travel as a vacation, but invest in learning about the cultures. Learn a new language. Make time for old friends. Pick up new hobbies. Get competitive in something. Expand yourself beyond your work and your relationships. Go out for no other reason than to be with your friends. Learn how to dance. Take some time off work. Attend a meditation retreat.

And don’t just do something else, but care about it, invest yourself in it.

Lest you become like our finance guru at a Tony Robbins seminar. Because chances are, the Batman of Psychology is not going to be around to save you.

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