Guardrails and Identity

Humankind’s tendency to conform creates the guardrails that organize our society.

I realize the statement above runs counter to how we like to view ourselves: independent free-thinkers blazing our own path in the world. For the most part, that perception is not the reality. More commonly, even individuals who have a reputation for being independent or even counterculture conform within their groups – cowboys dress like other cowboys and bikers dress like other bikers. To belong, one must fit.

So, what defines our fit, our identity, our sense of self? For most people, their occupation is the primary identity anchor. What we do for a living represents more than simply a paycheck. It often represents the gateway to personal relationships and, as such, our social network. Of course, our social network in turn majorly influences our societal views, our political ideology, and, in some cases, even our spiritual beliefs. The fact is that most people derive a substantial portion of their personal identity and self-worth from their occupation.

This being the case, what happens when we lose our job? Or worse yet, our industry? One need only to have a conversation with a taxi driver to get a sense of the resulting impact. Uber and other ridesharing services have disrupted not only the industry but the sense of security of those it employs, and autonomous vehicles loom just over the horizon. This example is just one of many and is the kind of innovation-driven change that disrupts not only our economy but our individual and cultural identity as well. By threatening our occupation, technical advancements by default threaten our sense of self and potentially our connection to community.

The social and political chaos that we are experiencing in the world today is a result of what I refer to as identity disruption. This threat to identity is the reason we are seeing such an extreme polarization in social and political forums. Without an occupation as a reliable anchor point, many are feeling untethered and adrift, and thus are seeking comfort and camaraderie in a shared ideology. It’s no surprise then that the term compromise has become so unpopular. This ideal is even reflected in our local and federal governments, both of which provide startling examples of the resulting intolerance. Many now behave as if their very way of life is at stake, breaching social norms, professional decorum, and long-established protocol to gain advantage over differing points of view. As a result, no longer are we simply debating strategy or a vision for the future, we are defending our identity as well. Compromise therefore feels akin to surrender.

Conformity does form the guardrails that organize our society. But left unchallenged, those same guardrails also limit our potential. As a nation, we must remember that this country was built by those who chose to challenge conformity. Change is uncomfortable, even terrifying at times. However, it is equally true that change is inevitable and is best navigated by those who are actively engaged. Adapting to change is part of the human experience. History is filled with stories of those who brought forth disruptive ideas and those who stood firmly against them with their ideology rooted firmly in the status quo. We cannot retreat to the familiar but must move forward seeking the possible while actively selecting the positive. Lest we forget, the world was once flat and only birds were meant to fly.