Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a breakfast talk given by Cowboy great Drew Pearson at the SMU campus here in Plano. Besides earning a place in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor last year in recognition of his NFL greatness, Drew is a successful marketing executive, life coach, and motivational speaker. Drew gave a talk on the subject of identity. Until I saw a post from my colleague and friend Tom Austin on the subject of digital vs. personal self, I had no plans to blog about Drew’s talk. Tom poses several questions:
- Does your digital self reflect your real-world self?
- Is it desirable or even possible to separate your personal self from your digital self?
- How do you deal with this challenge?
Yesterday morning, Drew talked about the importance of identity at both an individual and organizational level. Having an identity means you know who you are and what you believe, and you never have to guess how you should behave. For individuals, your identity is the set of constraints that dictates who you associate with, how you treat people, how you make decisions, and how you will be remembered. For organizations, identity dictates what people you should recruit, who you should fire, how you develop your strategic and operational plans, how your culture evolves, and how your customers and competitors see you in the market. Businesses try to codify identity through the mission statement. Religious organizations use creeds. Nations use constitutions. Weirdly, individuals often don’t codify identity at all. Some of us opt for an affirmation statement. For most of us, our identity is something of an accident that we fall into, rather than something we deliberately choose.
Identity is hard enough to get right in the real world. How many of us are consistent in our values, our friendships, our goals? How many of us have been willing, from time to time, to pursue avenues other than those our probable identities would suggest? How many of us have never even taken the time to decide what we are or who we want to be? If you’re constantly negotiating with yourself, you probably don’t have a perfectly-formed identity. But don’t feel too terrible, because most of us are in the same boat.
If it’s hard to nail down an identity in the real world, it’s damn near impossible in the digital world. Every Facebook status update, every Tweet, and every LinkedIn post is another chance for us to betray our identities, revealing painfully short attention spans, feeble convictions, failures to be who we say we are (or even who we would like to be able to say we are). And that’s just the stuff we do on purpose – Google, Microsoft, and hundreds of government agencies around the world are no doubt compiling frighteningly detailed dossiers on our “true” digital selves.
I don’t pretend to have the solution to this conundrum. I think we’d all benefit from being more deliberate about our real-world identities. If we can do that, we’ll have a fighting chance at effectively managing our digital identities by aligning our digital and real-world values and choices.