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8.4.2. A Sense of Identity


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 8. The Motivating Fire > 8.4. Basic Drivers > 8.4.2. A Sense of Identity

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Beyond the sense of control, we are deeply driven by our sense of identity, of who we are. ‘I’ is a capital letter, denoting the importance we place on our sense of individual self. As Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

The sense of identity appears early on in life during the ‘terrible two’s, when toddlers start to discover and assert their individuality. At this time, they typically cling to a single teddy bear or doll, through which they know their own identity (I am not my teddy). When this ‘transition object,’ as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott called it, is removed, a part of their identity is lost, causing distress and tears. This pattern continues through our lives as we identify with our possessions and the things around us and feel bad when they are changed or lost.

Fig. 8.4 shows basic factors that affect our sense of identity and which are discussed below.

Fig. 8.4 Factors leading to a sense of identity

The need to belong

We categorise ourselves in terms of other people and groups. Evolution has taught us that it is beneficial to live in tribes, where we can share out the work of daily survival. When asked about yourself, you may well describe yourself in terms of your work and family relationships: ‘I work for AB Corporation.’ or ‘I am married to Steve and have three children.’

If we lost our job, it would not just be the loss of money (affecting our sense of control) that hurt us, but also the loss of relationships and feelings of being outside the company with which we have identified ourselves for so long.

The fear of rejection from the groups with which we identify is a powerful force and just the thought of this is enough to dissuade many people from ever taking their creative ability out of the cupboard where they have locked it for fear of its potential social effects.

The need to conform

One way in which we retain approval by other group members is by preserving their sense of control, which translates into conforming to group norms. This may include dressing similarly (from jeans to suits), using jargon (from street slang to professional terminology) and behaving within and outside the group in specific ways.

Loneliness can be a terrible feeling and the threat of rejection or even simple disapproval by group members is a powerful incentive to conform. Even the stereotyped image of the ‘lone inventor’ (remember how we categorise people) who is shunned and laughed at for his or her social ineptitude is enough to dissuade many people from taking any actions that might get them thought of as inventive.

We also conform to our own self-image; ‘I am not creative’ or ‘I cannot invent things’ are powerful affirmations that can effective prevent us from even trying to disprove them.

The need for esteem

Once we are established within a group, our next step is to climb the ladder of popularity, seeking the esteem of other members of the group. Esteem can be a slippery slope, and any form of behaviour that threatens the group can result in a loss of social position. We are so driven by the need for approval of others, we tend to avoid activities such as making creative suggestions that might cause discord of any kind.

It is critical if you require approval or agreement when being creative around other people, whether it is coming up with new ideas or showing them your inventions, to get social permission, for example by explicitly stating that this is an new and uncertain situation.

The need to appear rational

If I am not rational, then this means that I will upset the need for predictability of the people around me. Where the creative process is not understood, then anyone speculating about ideas may appear to be irrational, leading us to avoid such situations. As with most creative situations, the social effects require very careful management.

The need to win (and not fail)

If I succeed at what I do, then I will not only increase my sense of control, but should also increase the esteem I receive from other people. This need is illustrated when our favourite football team wins and we say ‘We won!’, bringing closer our identity with the team, but when the team loses, we say, ‘They lost,’ now distancing ourselves from the failure of team.

Inventing and being creative is, by necessity, a numbers game. You must expect failure on the road to success. Thomas Edison, who held over 1300 patents, failed many times when inventing the electric light bulb. When criticised for not producing early results, he replied, ‘Results! Why man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work.’

The need to explain

If I can explain my own actions, then I can appear rational. If I can explain other things, then I can appear to be an expert and thus increase my standing with other people. Coupled with the needs to appear rational and to win, this often appears in the form of blaming. When something happens, the first response of many children (and adults, in more subtle forms) is, ‘It wasn’t me,’ followed by an instant theory of what happened, attributing the cause to other people and events.

Creative thinking can, at times, be vague and unclear, for example when we are following a hunch, which is just an unexplained idea from the subconscious (which, unfortunately, does not always help us with our personal needs). Good ideas have been likened to jokes, whereby you are in the dark until the punch line arrives; until the idea is proven, you cannot be sure how good it really is.

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