We get ensnared by it all the time. No one is immune to Descartes' trap!
Rene Descartes said "I think therefore I am." In issuing these five little words, Descartes, considered by many to be the father of modern philosophy, unintentionally set into motion one of the most prevalent and insidious identity traps ever. It might be more accurate to call him the father of modern insanity given the decisions people make once they've fallen in.
What is Descartes' trap? It's when you unwittingly confuse the timeless nature of who you are with the ever-changing nature of what you are -- and make life-shaping decisions, accordingly. It happens all the time when people confuse what they do with who they are. I am a star athlete; that's who I am. I'm a young investment banker; that's who I am. I'm a doctor; that's who I am. Maybe not.
At some point, the star athlete retires, then "who" is she? Or the banker gets fired -- for the second time in three years -- and is at a loss for how to understand who he is in the face of recurring rejection. The label is gone, but the person remains. Now what?
It's not only individuals who get caught in Descartes' trap. So do nations and companies, and the stakes can be enormous, which brings me to the stories that inspired this newsletter.
America meets Descartes
As I write this, the United States is pursing the Russian proposal to collect and destroy Syria's chemical weapons cache. But the US is keeping its military option open. The main argument President Obama makes to justify this response to the Syrian crisis is America's "moral obligation" to protect innocent people, wherever they may live.
I believe there's more to it than that; I think we're stuck in a "what we are" box built upon our long-held view of our country as the world's policeman. Despite Americans' reluctance to attack Syria -- and despite Obama's assertion that we are not trying to be the world's policeman -- it's a hard box to climb out of, challenging our sense of identity at its core.
If we're not the world's policeman, are we still America? It's a role that has defined how we create value in the world for decades. But it's not who America is. Unconsciously, we've confused what we are with who we are. We've fallen into Descartes' trap. We don't even know it and the potential consequences are severe.
Microsoft meets Descartes
Microsoft is in the midst of a full-blown identity crisis, having tumbled unknowingly into Descartes' trap years ago. A recent New York Times article lays out the problem, eloquently, in Stress Fractures at Microsoft. In short, Microsoft can't get out of the 'bigness' box it climbed into after years of organic and acquisition growth. We are big, we are powerful; therefore, we are. Underlying this unspoken self-perception is the fact that more is rarely more. So far, the knee-jerk reaction to Microsoft's size conundrum among outsiders seems to be to break the company up into more manageable, self-governing pieces.
This strategy may make Microsoft smaller, but it won't necessarily make it better. (Note to the Microsoft board: Take a page from Lou Gerstner's playbook when he decided to keep IBM intact rather than break it into parts.)
Whatever Microsoft does, most likely under a new CEO, it had better take a look at its fundamental identity -- who it is, not just what it is -- before it does it. Either way, the consequences will be enormous, guaranteed.
Why do we do it?
Why is it that individuals, companies, and nations all fall into Descartes' trap? Why do we make well-intended, but often bad decisions when questions of identity are involved? Is it ego? Arrogance? Stubbornness? Or is it, maybe, because we're simply not aware that we're dealing with an identity issue in the first place?
The fix isn't hard. Next time you or your company faces a really tough challenge that grates at you -- something just doesn't feel right -- think about Descartes' trap, shift the conversation and, as appropriate, consider one of the following three questions:
When is a relationship challenge really an identity challenge?When is a business challenge really an identity challenge?When is a national leadership challenge really an identity challenge?
I can't guarantee that the last question will reach the right ears, but I know the first two will, because those ears are yours.
Know a person or company that fell into Descartes' trap? What happened? Share your story at Identity Beacon.
About the author: Larry Ackerman is a leading authority on organizational and personal identity. He is the founder of The Identity Circle, a consulting and coaching firm dedicated to improving the performance, impact, and reputation of companies and individuals.Larry has been an advisor to senior executives and a consultant to their institutions. Clients have included AARP, Aetna, Dow Chemical, Fidelity Investments, Ingersoll Rand, Lockheed Martin, Maytag, Norsk Hydro, State Farm Insurance, and Ernst & Young. Larry has published two groundbreaking books on identity, Identity Is Destiny: Leadership and the Roots of Value Creation, and The Identity Code: The 8 Essential Questions for Finding Your Purpose and Place in the World. He is also the author of numerous articles on identity and its impact on brand, leadership, and culture. Larry Ackerman has been a guest lecturer at the Yale School of Management, Wharton, Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Pepperdine University and UCLA’s Anderson School. Larry is a top-rated speaker for The Conference Board, and a regular keynote for leading organizations. Larry graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a BA degree in English and from Boston University with an MS in Communications. He is also a graduate of the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara’s LifeLaunch coaching program.