The Mystery of Identity: Who Do You Think You Are?


February 7, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

Who do you think you are? This question is more subtle than it sounds. It’s amazing to me how often I ask this of people and their first response is: “Well, I think I’m perceived as someone who……”

I stop them immediately, saying: “I didn’t ask you to analyze how you think other people see you. I want to know who you think you are. Taking everyone else in the world out of the equation, including the opinions of your spouse, your family, and your closest friends, how do you perceive yourself?” What follows is often a long period of silence as they struggle to get their self-image into focus. After people think for a while, I can generally extract a straight answer.

So who do you think you are? How do you define yourself?

If you ask me about myself, I’ll tell you simply: “I am someone who helps successful people achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.” These 10 words describe how I see myself as a professional. They are so much a part of who I am and how I see myself that they might as well be tattooed on my forehead.

I didn’t always define myself this way.

As a teenager in Kentucky, I was “one of the boys.” A few years later, I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. By my late twenties, when I had a PhD in organizational behavior from UCLA and a teaching position at Loyola, I saw myself as a researcher and professor. Finally in my forties—more than half the average person’s lifetime—I determined the self-definition that I use today: “I help successful people achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.”

Now tell me: Who do you think you are?


Identity is a complicated subject and we can make it even more complicated when we’re not sure where to look for the best answer. For instance, you may hurtle yourself back to your past—to signal events, memorable triumphs, painful disasters—to define yourself. You may rely on the testimony of others—the good or bad review of a boss or teacher—as a means of defining yourself. Or you may project yourself into the future, defining yourself as who you would like to be rather than who you actually are. Other people’s definitions of you aren’t necessarily what you want to project to people at home or those with whom you work.

Let’s remove the complexity from the question. Let’s make it simple—so as to understand our identity and do something about it. At its core, our identity is determined by two dynamics that complement and compete with one another.

The first dynamic is the interplay between our past and our future. Many of my clients cling to their past. Some even use it as an excuse for current and future behavior. There’s no getting around the fact that much of our sense of self is determined by our past. How could it not be? Still, if we want to make positive changes in our lives, we also need some sense of a future self—not the person we think we were but the person we want to become. The push-pull between our past and future selves leaves our heads twirling as we swing back and forth between the comfort of our past self and the unknown promise of a future self.

The second dynamic tracks the tension between the image others have of us and the image we have of ourselves. It’s the different weights we assign to what others say about us and what we tell ourselves. If we are too concerned about what others think of us, we will lose our sense of identity in our quest to please others. If we are not sufficiently concerned with what others think of us, we will have little idea what changes we might make to improve how we relate to others.

To understand how you relate to any activity or person, you have to understand your identity. You have to understand who you are. When you are putting this identity out into the world, you may realize that you need to either create a new identity for yourself or let go of an identity that doesn’t serve you. You might even want to rediscover an identity that you have let go.