Avoid identity creep when making decisions by staying connected to your “why”

Published by Peter on

Last week I wrote about lifestyle creep. This week I’m thinking about what I call identity creep. Where you wake up one day and don’t recognize who you’ve become, asking yourself, “How did I get here?”

I’ve been watching the news closely about the woeful collapse of the Pac-12 conference.

In case you don’t follow college sports, here’s the summary: Eight of the 12 universities in the Pac-12 Conference abandoned tradition and history to chase more money for their college football programs, putting the four remaining universities’ sports programs in serious jeopardy of financial distress.

Lots of little choices add up to big mistakes

For the past week, pundits and fans have largely agreed that the best thing for these remaining universities would be to join a different conference thousands of miles across the country.

Big money in that arrangement. Sure, there would be difficulties, but there would be big money.

As I’ve written before, chasing money can make you lose sight of your “why.” Getting the money today might seem to solve problems you think you have, but it also nudges you in a direction that may or may not align with who you are trying to be.

Add a lot of these nudges up over time, and one day you may find yourself far, far off course without any idea how or when things changed. You’re just in a very wrong place, and it may be impossible to find your way back.

This is identity creep. The slow erosion of who you are through lots of little compromises and decisions that nudge you in the wrong direction.

Trying to fit in without being able to explain why

I don’t know all the factors going into the decisions being made today by those universities, but I know this: Nearly everyone involved is talking only about money. Virtually no one is talking about the complex, rich, meaningful role athletics plays in a university setting, or the impacts beyond TV, logistics, playoffs, and… well, money.

Base image of football players created with Adobe Express generative AI. I added the money bag, which is stock art from Envato.

This may be simply the culmination of years of identity creep—over time, TV money has become more and more important in college sports (specifically football), to the point that it is now the only item truly under consideration. Everything else gets lip service at best.

When there’s only one factor people take seriously, every decision is a fork in the road, a binary choice between do or don’t. Other potentially viable options never even get considered because creative thought is dismissed out of hand.

The eight schools that fled the conference decided money was the only important thing. The four remaining schools are now chasing the biggest available money, and if that falls through they’ll chase the next biggest money.

Chosen identity drives decision making

Money is just one of many things that can cause us to compromise on our values and ethics, or to fail to see a better option.

Anything we fear (losing a job, losing a contract, losing a marriage), anything we desire (prestige, fame, money, influence), or anything we need (food, shelter) can present dilemmas that force us to choose between competing values, fears, needs, and desires.

I’ve seen this in people (including myself), and I’ve seen this in the startups, nonprofits, and Fortune 100 companies I’ve worked for. All you have to do is look at the news to see it.

How you make each choice reveals who you are. But it also influences who you become.

This is why something like a pandemic or turning 50 or losing a sibling or being abandoned by your peers can knock people sideways. Events like these often make people see themselves in a different light, and they don’t always like who they’ve become.

Sometimes they don’t like who they’ve become.
Sometimes they don’t know who they’ve become.

When people aren’t in touch with who they are at their core, they put themselves at risk of identity creep: They slowly become a manifestation of the accumulation of other people’s opinions, fears, and desires instead of who they really are inside.

Choosing intentionality with eyes wide open

I’m a realist. There are big gray areas where courage and foolhardiness overlap, where fear and discretion overlap, where paranoia and concern overlap. Identity creep happens in those gray areas.

External pressures can be overwhelming. It can feel impossible to break away and do something different from what everyone else expects and demands of you. Sometimes it’s just not safe or realistic to do what your heart tells you.

Some decisions have no good options. Some situations have no good outcomes.

And frequently, even when we’re in touch with our core values, we face complex decisions where multiple of our values are in conflict.

So I’m not trying to say that if you stick to your values, everything will always work out okay. That’s not how life works.

What I am saying is that every time you make a decision that goes against who you are at your core, you nudge yourself farther away from happiness. You nudge yourself toward a situation where you feel perpetually out of place, never really fitting the life you’re in.

And then one day you wake up finding you’ve made some terribly wrong decision, like throwing out everything that’s actually important to you in order to get more TV money for your football team.

Four tips to avoiding identity creep

So how can you avoid identity creep, or correct it when you recognize you’ve let it happen to you? Here are four deceptively simple tips. They sound easy on the surface but actually take a lot of work and constant diligence to incorporate into a lifestyle.

1. Surround yourself with the right people

Some people with their own agendas will try to manipulate you into decisions that go against who you are. They want to change you into their vision of you, rather than accept you for who you are. Surround yourself with people who see and support you, and avoid entangling with people who treat you as a secondary character in their own adventure. Also, don’t be one of those people to someone else.

2. Filter out the “helpful” noise

Not everyone who gives you advice is trying to manipulate or change you. Well-meaning, supportive people who have your best interests at heart will tell you what they think is best. You need to become profoundly self-aware and in tune with your own value system in order to know what is useful and what is just noise you should ignore. Also, when you give someone you care for advice, give them the room to reject it if it’s not right for them.

3. Engage in creative and critical thinking

When it seems there aren’t any options, force yourself to be creative. Don’t fall into the trap of single-issue decision making, which can have you chasing a red herring. When you can step back from the situation, name your fears and desires, separate facts from opinions, and expand your imagination, you may find that the best option is one you never even thought of at first.

4. Choose courage in the little moments

Identity creep happens in the gray areas and the little conflicts, and it reveals itself in the really big conflicts. Every decision, no matter how large or how small, defines who you’re becoming. In those little conflicts, the moments when it seems a lot easier just to give in rather than do what you know is right, choose courage instead of least resistance. If you can muster the fortitude to choose courage in those moments that seem inconsequential, you’ll find it a lot easier to see what’s truly right and to stand your ground in the big conflicts.

I can help.

I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. I also help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. Would you like to be more effective, be more empowered, and feel fully prepared for your next steps?

Let’s talk.

You can help.

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