Ep. #32: Mistaken Identity

There are two types of people: those who think they are who they are and that’s never going to change, and those who think that they are whomever they choose to become. Which group are you in? Because I can promise you, it’s those in the latter group who are making all the money and having all the fun. Listen to this episode to learn how to join us.


Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s episode is for every listener who is struggling under the weight of an identity that doesn’t serve them. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and I’m glad you’re here because very often we are mistaken about identity, and today we’re going to discuss why.

I’m thinking a lot about identity this week because I recently went to a dinner party where one woman at the table dropped a bit of a bomb. She’d been operating her whole life under the impression that she was of Mexican descent and she embraced that wholeheartedly. She studied the culture. learned Spanish, visited the country. She learned their ways of cooking and she made Mexican food frequently in her home. Almost everyone at that party said that she was an amazing cook of Mexican cuisine. She reported loving all things Mexican, and of course Mexico is an easy country to love. It’s a lovely place and there are lovely people there.

But then this woman had a DNA test, which reported that she was of Peruvian descent. Not a trace of Mexican in her blood.

So now she’s at a crossroads. Is she going to continue to operate as she has in the past, embracing all things Mexican based on her thinking that they are an integral part of who she is? Or is she going to go off on a new exploration into Peruvian culture, travel, and food? Or is she going to do something else entirely?

Identity is a choice

I was so happy to be at this dinner party and hear this woman’s story and the resulting questions that everyone was asking her, because it illustrates so clearly that our identity, what we think about ourselves, who we are, what we embrace, and ultimately who we become or don’t become, is a choice.

When we’re young, and even when we’re adults, we’re often told who we are. Once my Aunt told me that our family is overweight. That’s just “who we are.” Many people take quizzes to find who they are. I recently saw a quiz that will tell you you’re an entrepreneur, or if you’re an employee. Some of us read horoscopes to find out who we are.

But none of this becomes part of our identity unless we believe it. I can disagree with my Aunt that I’m destined to be overweight because I’m a member of this family. I can decide to be an entrepreneur; online quiz be damned. And I can toss out the newspaper’s astrological report and become something beyond what it foretells for me if I want to. I’m Sagittarius according to my birthday, which theoretically means I’m bad with money, and thankfully I decided to ignore that part of the newspaper’s astrological assessment of who I am.

Why can I do this? All of this is possible, because what is identity? It is simply what we believe about ourselves. And belief can change, because what is a belief? It’s thoughts you think over and over again. The sentences that run through your mind on a loop. And those sentences, just like programming in a computer, can change if you want them to.

Fixed Identity vs. Fluid Identity

It’s tempting to categorize ourselves. To fall into these quizzes and think that they tell us something about ourselves. Gretchen Rubin, whom I adore by the way, has made a fortune on books, blogs, and podcasts that describe a framework she developed for how we respond to an expectation, either an outer expectation—something others want us to do–or an inner expectation, which is something we want for ourselves.

And she says that we fall into one of four categories. We’re either rebels who resist all expectations, or we’re upholders—we readily respond to both inner and outer expectations. Or we’re obligers, in which case we do what other people want us to do, but we don’t do what we want ourselves to do. Or we’re questioners, in which case we question all expectations and do only what makes sense to us.

She goes on to say that these tendencies are hard-wired. We can’t change them, so don’t bother trying. She says it’s far easier to learn to operate within your tendency, and she gives people strategies for doing that. If you’re a rebel or an obliger or an upholder or a questioner, she tells you how to manage your life so that you can still achieve your goals within your tendency. For example, If you’re an obliger and you want to exercise more, the way to do that is to get a workout buddy. The theory is that as an obliger, you will show up for the other person, even if you won’t show up for yourself, so a workout buddy to whom you’re accountable is how you as an obliger can exercise more within the confines of your tendency.

This framework, and the workaround strategies, are helpful for many people who know and love Gretchen Rubin’s work, and for them that’s great. But it’s not great for some people. What if you’re an “obliger” who wants to exercise, but you can’t find a workout buddy? Is it over for you, as far as exercise goes?

This is one of the big problems with a fixed-identity mindset. A fixed-identity mindset is the Popeye world view. “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If all you are right now is all you ever hope to be, this works, but if you want more, as I think all entrepreneurs do, this worldview is a disaster.

Now here I want to emphasize two things. First, I’m not criticizing Gretchen Rubin. Her work resonates with many people and they find it incredibly useful, and personally I think she’s terrific. But I am critical of the idea about fixed identity that’s embedded in the “four tendencies” framework to the extent that it prescribes limitations on those who don’t want to operate within the confines of a category, and this brings me to the second thing I want to emphasize today. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter which framework—fixed or fluid identity–is empirically true. All that matters is which framework is useful for you.

Gretchen Rubin says that the way we handle expectations—whether we’re a rebel or an obliger or an upholder or a questioner–is in our nature. It’s hard-wired. That’s useful for some people but it’s not useful for others, and for those who don’t find it useful, here’s what I see. When Gretchen Rubin speaks of her own tendency, she does so in terms of thoughts. She says, “Well, this is the way I am, or the way I conduct myself, because I think this.” For example, in one of her podcast episodes where she was describing her desire to stay on east coast time during a trip to California, she attributed this desire to her tendency, she’s an upholder, but she also said something along the lines of, Well I just thought that it would be easier to stay on east coast time.

And I think this is the way it works for people within any of the four tendencies. What we tend to do is what we think will be easier or more fun or that we think is more certain to pay off. So in my mind, none of this categorization is based on human nature. It’s based on our thoughts. What I see is that those who identify as obligers tend to think that the things other people want are more important than what they want. It’s just easier to please others than to please themselves. A rebel thinks that meeting expectations is something to be avoided, for whatever reason. Perfectionism and fear of failure are probably a large part of it for people who identify as rebels, and this is definitely what I see in practice. Questioners think that it’s important not to do anything that is arbitrary or that doesn’t make logical sense. And upholders think things such as, it’s fun to strive to new heights and achieve new goals, whether they’re set for me by someone else, or by myself.

So if I were to reconcile my thoughts on this with Gretchen Rubin’s “four tendencies” framework, what I would say is not that she has identified four different categories of human nature, but rather that she has identified four ways that humans tend to think, and that certain opportunities and challenges very predictably arise from each type of thought pattern. She would say, manage your outer circumstances to make it easier to live within your tendency. And I would say, fine, to a point if that works for you. If managing your outer circumstances works for you and it’s efficient and you enjoy doing that, by all means, have at it. But if this doesn’t work for you, or you don’t like doing it, or it seems inefficient (and probably it is inefficient on at least some level, maybe a huge level), it’s far easier to change your thoughts.

I’ve coached a “rebel”, a self-identified rebel, who was struggling and feelings all kinds of stress at work because of her tendency to resist anything her boss wanted her to do. But when we looked at her thoughts about the instructions her boss gave her, and also that she wanted to do exactly the things he was telling her to do, what she found is that the tasks important in their own right. So why the resistance? Only because of her thoughts, not because of her nature. She was thinking that the moment he told her to do it, she had to do it, and she didn’t like the idea that she was forced. But this is just a thought that she was forced, and it’s actually a thought error. Anyone can disregard their boss’ instructions. There may be consequences for that, but they can do it. Anyone can quit their job at any moment and get a new one. We abolished slavery and indentured servitude a long time ago. And once she saw that following an instruction is always a choice, she no longer felt rebellious. She felt great about doing her work. It’s what she wanted to do anyway, and she no longer got riled up when her boss gave her instructions. So was this woman a rebel by nature, or was she just thinking thoughts that led to an emotional response of feeling rebellious? I think it’s the latter.

How often have you been wrong about something?

So here’s what I’d like you to think about. If you’re currently thinking of yourself as “not an entrepreneur” or “someone who could never be rich” or “someone who could never be thin,” I’d like you to look back on your life and think about all the times that you’ve been wrong. Not just a little bit wrong, but WAY wrong. Think about that cringe-worthy haircut you had back in the ‘80s that you thought was amazing. Or that boy or girl in high school you thought was boring and who is now a Silicon Valley billionaire and the most magnetic person at the class reunion. Even our politics can change. I know a woman who was as liberal as they come, and she’d rail against anything that smacked of conservatism. But now she “knows better.” Her views have done a complete 180, but she’s remains, as she always was, 100% convinced that she’s right and everyone who holds even a slightly different opinion is 100% wrong.

This isn’t a political show, and the point here is not to raise political ire. It’s to suggest that if your identity isn’t in line with your goals, if you desperately want something—to get out of debt, lose weight, earn more money or enjoy financial freedom and true wealth—but getting it contradicts what you’re thinking about yourself and your capabilities, take a pause and consider that you may be wrong about yourself. Entirely wrong. This happens all the time. I don’t mean some of the time. I mean all of the time.

Why is it all of the time? Because what I see is that we are born rich and we are born thin. As far as our eating goes, we come equipped with a beautiful, infinitely reliable mechanism that has us eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we’ve had enough. We learn to overeat. We learn it through food that’s engineered to highjack our brains, and through the efforts of adults who think they know better than the wisdom that’s present in our own bodies. Usually, these adults who teach us to disregard the wisdom of our own bodies struggle with their own weight, which is a very good sign that they do not in fact know better. And what we learned from them, that’s keeping weight on us, we can unlearn.

The same thing is true for entrepreneurship and wealth-building, because here’s what I see. Kids want everything. They ask for things, all the time. Get them away from their parents for two seconds and they ask for the moon. Can we have this? Can we have that? And they don’t do it in a spoiled way. They don’t want the moon for free. They also want to help. Kids want to be involved in everything. But what do we teach them? Stop asking, and get out of my hair so I can get this done. We teach them to want less, and we teach them to want to do less.

And we actively encourage them to give up lofty goals to avoid disappointment of potentially not realizing those goals. The would-be screenplay writer or CEO or astronaut becomes an accountant or a middle-manager or a lawyer instead. That’s “realistic.” And now all the realistic jobs, the “safe” jobs, are being replaced by machines, and what do we need? We need people machines can’t replace. We need better screenplays, better run companies, and people who can take us to the moon and beyond.

So what I’m suggesting here is that, just as we kill their innate ability to manage their weight, we kill entrepreneurship in our children. If you can’t see your inner entrepreneur right now, it’s because someone killed it in you, or maybe you did it to yourself with their assistance and support. In my mind it’s very telling that the Four Tendencies, according to Gretchen Rubin, don’t reliably emerge until adulthood. She’s having trouble determining which tendency one of her own children presents. In my mind this is a good indication that our tendency is not hard-wired. It’s not innate. It’s something we learn, and much of what we learn is exactly what leads us straight into broke and bulky.

If you are thinking that you’re not naturally thin, if you’re thinking that you’ll never be rich, in monetary terms or any other form, it’s because you’re operating under the weight of a mistaken identity. It’s just a set of thoughts you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking, and you can stop thinking those thoughts if you want to.

So what I have for you this week, for everyone who’s inclined to categorize people and dump them into buckets, is that there are exactly two types of people: those who think they are who they are and that’s never going to change, and those who think that they are whomever they wish to become, and that they can create anything they wish to create. Question for today is which group are you in? And think hard about this, because I can promise you, it’s those in the latter group who are making all the money and having all the fun.

If you want to begin working on your own thoughts about having what you want, and getting out from under everything you don’t want, this is the essence of Rich & Thin™, by the way, get in touch. kelly@richandthin.com. Thanks for joining me today and I’ll speak to you next week.

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