On labels, and changing your personal default settings

I’ve been thinking about identity, that is the things which we consider ourselves to be. For example, I could say: “I am a geek”, “I am an engineer”, and many other things.

Is it a good idea to say things like this? Is it a good idea to have ideas like this at all? Also, if I use these labels, what should their values be?

My main concern with using these labels is that rather than just describing me, which could be useful, they could change my behaviour. I’ll take “engineer” as an example here. I have sometimes found myself thinking things like, “draw something? That is something artists do, I am an engineer, so I can’t”. This is of course ridiculous. These sort of labels can be ingrained by university, which is a good way to illustrate how ridiculous they are. Before choosing a university course, many people are not sure what they want to do. The course choice could be a toss up, but then a few years later they think they can no longer do something they were capable of before university.

Gender is another obvious one. People seem to be very attached to their gender, leading to things like not doing certain activities or convincing yourself not to like some design or colour because it is meant to be for another gender. I remember seeing a program on the BBC where they gave an identical soft drink to boys and girls in two different bottles - one blue called Rocket Pop and one pink called Princess Pop. Mostly, the boys preferred the Rocket Pop and the girls the Princess Pop. What if I decide I can’t drink Princess Pop because I am a man but actually I would otherwise think it tastes better? I could end up being less happy for no good reason.

What if you give yourself some label of sexual preference and then you fancy or fall in love with someone who doesn’t fit in with this label? This sort of thing can cause a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

Another reason to be wary of “I am” statements is the effect on the ego. I don’t know much about this really, but my understanding is that some people and religions think that the ego is a sense of individual existence and being separate from everything else. This is considered undesirable and some people try to reduce it or achieve ego death or enlightenment. I suspect that constantly attaching ideas and descriptions to “I” is only going to increase ego. As well as avoiding these labels totally, maybe randomly changing the settings could help to show that they are not immutable or necessarily part of you.

If you don’t mind these labels though, how do you know you’ve got the right ones? By the right ones, I mean the ones that make you happiest, or help you achieve your goals. Have you even thought about them, or did you just take the defaults?

Hackers spend a long time customising their environment with dotfiles. These configuration files are carefully customised and curated to create a unique environment that pleases the inhabitant of the computer system. If you do this with software, why not yourself, which is far more important.

What are your default settings? Why not try changing them and see what they do? I’ve decided to try doing this. Actually, I found I already had done some before I started to think about it like this, but maybe I should try some more.

Here are some suggestions for parameters to try adjusting in your .self

  • Profession: e.g. engineer, artist. Even without changing jobs, this could be experimented with by doing something from some other class, e.g. painting for an engineer. Maybe there is also a different way to think about things - it’s not just about what you do. Maybe I could try to judge things by their aesthetic appeal, rather than their functionality. I’ve been trying to answer questions like “what do you do” with a more direct description of what I have been doing recently, rather than a possibly quite inaccurate label I adopted some time ago.

  • Subcultural group memberships: e.g. geek, goth, hippie. (If you really want to use these at all.)

  • Social strata: Dress and mannerisms, and other factors may identify you as “middle class”, “working class”, or something like that.

  • Religion: Most people get this randomly assigned based on the religion of their parents. That’s clearly a setting worth investigating.

  • Gender: I am physically male. This is presumably what led my parents and others to assign me the masculine gender before I knew what this was. Now I am old enough to think about it maybe I should try some other settings.

  • Intelligence: Placebos have been shown to improve test results. If you label yourself as stupid, or bad at maths, changing the label could help.

  • Nationality: Maybe try picking one at random, or probably better, try to have none at all.

  • Diet: Depending on your randomly assigned country and religion, your default diet may be omnivore, vegetarian, or have some other restrictions. Have you thought about the ethical and health implications of each option? What about just trying something different? I was omnivorous by default and then switched to a vegan diet, for example.

There are other things you can change too, like lifestyle and living arrangements, which are not so clearly “I am” relationships, but still often considered a part of who you are. The difference between “traveller” and “homeless” is not in where you sleep, I think it is about how you see yourself, and if you are happy.

In summary, I would like to encourage you to experiment with what really makes you happy, and not just accept the defaults you are given.