Decades ago, a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, began to notice some patterns in his patients. In many cases, the patterns were positive ones. Patients who were disfigured in accidents would have their self-esteem restored after reconstructive surgery. People who had suffered social abuse all their lives because of physical defects seemed to discover a new strength when the defects were changed by surgery. None of that seemed particularly surprising. Who wouldn’t feel more confident after correcting a scar or a disfigurement?
What was more intriguing to Maltz were those who didn’t change. “Or what about all the others who acquired new faces,” he wrote in Psycho-Cybernetics, “but went right on wearing the same old personality? How to explain the reaction of people who insist that the surgery has made no difference whatsoever in their appearance? Every plastic surgeon has had this experience and has probably been as baffled by it as I was.” Adding to his confusion was the fact that some people were dis- figured but didn’t seem to care and even wore their scars with pride. For Maltz, it was proof that there was something more profound at work. “I became definitively convinced that many of the people who consult a plastic surgeon need more than surgery and that some do not need surgery at all,” he wrote.
What Maltz concluded—and what he spent much of the rest of his life studying and teaching—was that the driving force behind what he saw in his patients’ reactions to their surgery, and indeed the driving force behind much of our success in life, was self-image.
For Maltz, it seemed to matter far less what people looked like and far more what they thought they looked like. It was the image they held of themselves, not the image in the mirror, that determined how they felt and, as a result, how they acted. Maltz had seen in his patients something that psychologists and social scientists also see: that our identity—our image of ourselves and how we fit into the world around us—is a critical piece of how we think, feel, and behave. As a result, identity also determines a large part of the outcomes in our lives.
CLARK KENT v. SUPERMAN
If you’ve ever read a comic book or watched a superhero film, you’re already familiar with the idea of identity. Superman adopted the identity of mild-mannered, nervous Clark Kent to hide his true self from the world. People, like superheroes, have identities. We see ourselves as male or female, mothers or fathers, sons or daughters. We identify as white, black, Asian, Latino, African. We feel urban or rural and identify with various cultural, economic, social, and demographic groups. In high school we might have been jocks or geeks or stoners or goths or band campers or any number of other possibilities. The same applies to our family lives and careers. We adopt identities, and we may change them, depending on context.
Those identities aren’t just comic book costumes. They serve a critical purpose. They help us orient ourselves in the world, build social ties, and function and thrive when things are new or confusing, which they often are. Superman’s Clark Kent identity enabled him to fit in. To have a job. To be part of a community.
When it comes to pivoting, however, identity can provide us with a secret weapon—a superpower of sorts. Uncovering your true identity is about discovering who you are at the level of the roots, at the level of cause, at the level of the unseen. This explorative discovery and process is deep work, both literally and figuratively. It’s the kind of work and process that is essential for more successful living and is itself a life’s endeavor.
When I was still practicing law full-time, I threw myself into the process of self-discovery and discovered that I loved attending inner-growth seminars—which was new for me then. I especially enjoyed the meaningful teaching of the seminar leaders and the building of relationships between the students. Less than a year later I had a huge aha! moment—the one-handed clap, as I now call it. I realized, I am also a teacher. It was true. I taught swimming at camp when I was seventeen. I began my career path teaching English at Junior High School 185 in Queens, New York. And I had been a lawyer educating the court about my clients’ cases for more than a decade. What I had loved about law—the ability to defend, empower, and counsel—was all part of being a teacher. As I’d been drawn further into law as a business, I’d lost touch with that. In hindsight, it was all so obvious. But at the time, the path I needed to take in order to get back to those roots was obscured. It was the work of cleaning my windshield to find clarity that eventually led me to realize that I had strayed from an essential part of my identity.
Knowing who you are is how you start to design and create a life on purpose. It’s the opposite of the default, reactive mode of creation in which so many people are stuck. We’re all planting seeds of some sort. And we reap what we sow both unconsciously and consciously in our finances and money, career, health, and relationships. By uncovering your identity, you are planting and planning your life with purpose.”
PIVOT POINT: Your true identity is a signpost to your true purpose.
If you’re interested in hearing my recent podcast with Joel Roberts where he speaks about his personal and professional reinvention please join us on Conscious Pivot Radio ~ www.adammarkel.com/podcast