The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about our natural desire to want to “create” our identity. The idea is that we want to be the ones in control of how we see ourselves, and when we are denied that opportunity, we’re likely to push back.

In the last few days, there have been several new articles about how Americans don’t want to be boxed in when it comes to our sense of identity. Sunday’s New York Times had an article entitled “More Young Americans Identify as Mixed Race,” and author Susan Saluny notes that

[m]any young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

But while it’s not a surprise that young Americans want to choose how they present themselves in different situations, what is surprising is that when people do have a chance to embrace multiple aspects of their identity, they end up being significantly more creative. Author Jonah Lehrer explains:

According to a study led by Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, people who describe themselves as both Asian and American, or see themselves as a female engineer (and not just an engineer), consistently display higher levels of creativity.

In the first experiment, the researchers gathered together a large group of Asian Americans and asked them to design a dish containing both Asian and American ingredients. In the second study, they asked female engineers to design a new mobile communication device. In both cases, subjects who are better able to draw on their mixed backgrounds at the same time were more creative than those who could only draw on one of their backgrounds. They designed tastier dishes and came up with much better communication devices.

Because their different social identities were associated with different problem-solving approaches, their minds remained more flexible, better able to experiment with multiple creative strategies.In contrast, Asian Americans who felt that they had to “turn off” their Asian background in an American setting – this is an example of “low identity integration” – or female engineers who believed that they had to be less feminine to be effective at work, had a harder time drawing on their wealth of background knowledge. (Jonah Lehrer’s “Frontal Cortex” blog — “The Advantage of Dual Identities”)

I think there’s a clear reason why people with multiple senses of identity were more creative — they had started by needing to create their selves. If we have to think about who we are — a most basic and fundamental question — in new and inventive ways, then we’ll be that much more likely to start thinking of programs, products, and situations in new and inventive ways, as well.

And that provides a great opportunity to the American Jewish community, which by definition, involves at least two aspects of our identity — “American” and “Jewish.” As Rabbi Elie Kaunfer notes in his book Empowered Judaism:

That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is. Instead, people are forced to explain why they practice in a particular way or what, specifically, they believe in. A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice in the world…It is a major step forward because it leads to a rich discussion about what being Jewish means in our richly textured, highly individualized, twenty-first-century lives. (Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism, 147-148)

Quite simply, creativity leads to ownership. Indeed, at a recent session to learn about community organizing (a process Temple Beth El is going through now), there was a line that stuck with me: “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.”

For better or for worse in our society, we get to create our identity. So the question is whether or not that’s the end of the discussion. Do we simply say, “This is who I am,” or do we go further and say instead, “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”



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35 responses to “The Opportunity of Multiple (Aspects of Our) Personalities

  1. Jill Schachter Levy

    My kids are Israeli and American (on college applicationss they can label themselves as Asian!). While they see the world from more perspectives than most of their peers, this complexity has not made it easier for them since most of their friends have not lived in other countries.

    Nice to think it might add a layer of creativity as they push out into the world…

  2. “This is who I am…and this is what I want to create with it.”

    BEAUTIFUL sentiment — and so true! Thank you for sharing. I can hardly wait to read more…


  3. J Roycroft

    I am never quite sure who I am.

  4. while i love all of the last line…i think the real beauty of it is that we should be ok with EITHER statement.

  5. I like the part about creativity leads to ownership. However, I do think it comes down to people’s need to control how they and others see themselves.

  6. This is such an intriguing read. In todays international and multi-cultural society I guess we all have a need to define ourselves in a way that our forefathers largely did not “have to”. This has given me much food for thought….

  7. Liz

    Hopefully we are constantly changing and evolving or we are not growing.
    I think the quote, “People are not transformed by what they receive. They are transformed by what they create.” is too one dimensional. I believe we can be transformed by the information we receive when it motivates or inspires us to create. Just my two cents.

    Congrats being published on Freshly Pressed!


    • Hi Liz —

      I think the question is — does “what we receive” stop at where we are, or does it motivate us to move forward? We can certainly can be *affected* by what receive, but I think the transformation comes through the creative act.

  8. This is very interesting and was well worth reading. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Kari Cross

    Love your blog….great site! Thank you! 🙂

  10. Very enlightening post. It’s interesting to know that focusing on the seemingly conflicting aspects of who we are as individuals can help us be more creative. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Interesting post. Many people go to self-improvement seminars like Landmark to help create a new identity, a new possibility of “being.” They can achieve the same resuls by investing in their religious identification. Thanks again for sharing and I look forward to reading more.

  12. Very interesting information … It’s nice to know that wearing more than one hat at a time (so to speak) isn’t actually a bad thing. Thanks for the post!

  13. Interesting post ,stumled across you randomlly on wordpress.

  14. PL Holden

    I think this blog really opened a lot of eyes (especially mine!) to the fact that being “open-affiliated” is akin to having an open mind. My dad was adopted and never knew his parents, so as far as my known biological roots go it’s a pretty small family tree with a few branches.
    However, over the years I’ve been reading into DNA, and a book called Genome by Matt Ridley presented the many facts that point to the possiblility that we really do form our own destiny, even physically.

  15. asrai7

    Great post. It opened my eyes as well! I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to create my own identity, and that I don’t identify with any specific race or title. If anything, I identify with multiple titles. “female” “artist” entrepreneur” and “student” just being a few of them. I feel that identifying with multiple titles like these is essential in contributing to my creativity, because there are no limits! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  16. Very interesting and timely, at least for me. One of my favorite artists (Paul Klee) has a quote mentioning, “. . . becoming is superior to being.” I’ve always liked that — that the striving and journey are more that the sum of the destination. Conversly, I’m reading interesting stuff by Eckhart Tolle — who preaches the virtues of only living in “The Now.” Two sides of the same coin. Do we create from who we are? Or, do we become who we are from that which we create? I’ll be back often. ~

  17. Two steps forward, one step backward…

    Even someone identifying as e.g. Asian and American misses the point: What cultural or ethnic background we have is not a defining characteristic of who we are and should not be an influence on how we think about ourselves, how we develop ourselves, how we approach problems, and so on. Anyone falling into this trap does a disservice to himself.

    (Note that this applies to attitudes like “My parents come from X; ergo, I must behave like an X [solve problems like an X, study the X culture].” and similar—and is not to be confused with legitimate influences. That someone is raised by X parents, e.g., will necessarily lead to an influence, but this is a very different type of influence.)

    As for “female engineer”: Here we have someone pigeon-holing herself even deeper, worsening the problem.

    The point is that the fact that I was born in Sweden, live in Germany, and work with software development does not make my identity Swedish-German software developer. Why should I limit myself in that manner? I am a flexible individual who just happens to be born in Sweden, live in Germany, and work as a software developer. Certainly, I should draw on the experience, knowledge, whatnot, that this brings me when relevant. Under no circumstances, however, should I allow it to alter who I consider myself to be, how I (consciously) approach problems, etc.

  18. Very glad to have come across this post. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    I really liked this: “That Jews are increasingly unwilling to settle for a broad definition is a positive. Why? Because someone can no longer get away with telling you “I am Orthodox” (ed. note: or equivalently, “I am Reform”) and assume that you understand what kind of Jew she is.”

    I’m a Christian, but I don’t often say it that way, simply because it means so many things to so many people. Putting the word “progressive” or “emergent” or “contemplative” or “mainline” doesn’t always help. Do you get the sense, as I do, that this is an emerging reality across religious traditions? People want ways to be sincerely faithful while also being sincerely themselves, or, rather, we want a kind of faith that co-creates our most sincere selves. In this sense, we are truly more blessed by what we create, or what G-d creates with us, through us, in us, than by what we receive from tradition (rich as that may be) only. I do think one of the defining religious traits of this century will be our nuanced navigation of experience and tradition, of who our ancestors were and who we are, of what’s require of us now. We need religious communities that are excited about embracing these ways of being faithful.

    Thanks for this post, Rabbi. Blessings.

  19. I think personality is definitely something a person can alter to fit any social situation. That said, I think it’s character that people choose to see. They go hand in hand together. You can’t really have one without the other. By no means do I think personality is stagnant and neverchanging. How boring would that be if it was the case?

  20. I am who I am. I have many different racial backgrounds, but I have never thought of those backgrounds as having any say in who I am as a person, or what I can or cannot do. I believe that a person’s actions define who they are. Race is a psychological road block. We’re all made from the same stuff right?
    Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
    – Robert Francis Kennedy

  21. Wonderful, wonderful post! This is a new favorite blog of mine- I’m adding you to my blogroll!

  22. valentinedee

    We are constantly reconstructing our identities based on outside stimuli. Although we have the God given right and innate desire to create from within, it’s the past creations of ourselves that we see reflected back to us. Therefore, based upon what we see, we create.
    If we’ve been led to believe positively about ourselves, we will create in a more positive manner and continue to do so as long as our feedback is positive; and keeps our esteems in tack.
    And the opposite holds true, as well.

    Creating is what we do; what we’re born to do. But it can go either way.

  23. The only thing I am sure of that I can be some times a three year old attention seeking psycho .. 😛

  24. But mix marriage usually will result in pretty/handsome gals/boy…

    Baby Massage

  25. We are never out of opportunities to create our identities. Where we do go wrong is to follow a certain stereotype and say ‘This is who I am’ and not budge from it. This isn’t a stagnated process though. We are constantly discovering new things about ourselves – creating new identities.

  26. Very enlightening post. It’s interesting to know that focusing on the seemingly conflicting aspects of who we are as individuals can help us be more creative. Thank you for sharing.

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