Originally published on Huffington Post.
In mid 2009, I left my position as CEO of a company that I had founded. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of an almost four-year process that I can only describe as losing my identity.
In this time frame I would go through heartbreak and homelessness and question every aspect of my life. I moved from Honolulu to San Francisco to New York City. The new company I started went through eight pivots, four co-founders, and near bankruptcy. I spent 11 months living in my car and incurred massive debt just to keep things going. After a challenging breakup, I didn’t go on a single date for 18 months. I decided to stop eating meat and lost 15 pounds of muscle mass. I sold almost everything I owned down to my car, ultimately living on the grace of good friends. I went through immense psychological stress and periods of time where I could see no light at the end of the tunnel.
All the things that had been important to me — a nice apartment, fashionable clothes, a fancy startup, my social life, financial stability, my diet and fitness, even my sexuality — dissolved. Spending nights alone in my car, staring at rain drops sliding down the window, there was nothing to distract me from me.
As I began to let go of all these things, I came to a very challenging psychological place: I had no idea who I was. With every core identity in question, I had a very hard time even socializing with other people. If I had no identity, on what basis could I connect with others?
Identity is that collection of attributes that defines how we see ourselves. It is the answer to the question: Who am I? Anyone who has ever seriously asked themselves that question may have found that the answer is not as obvious as one might think it should be.
I am Lorenz. But who is that? The relationship that I have with the people I know, the things I do, and the stuff I own paints a very inviting image of who I am. But what happens when I take those things away? Who am I then?
When the attributes of our identity are externalized, those attributes control us. Our sense of self worth becomes dependent on external considerations. We must have enough money, means, and status in order to consider ourselves happy. In pursuit of maintaining this false sense of happiness, we cling all the more strongly to external identifiers because so much self worth emanates from them. It can take losing these things, losing our identity, to see our true nature outside of them.
Each identity is a limited interpretation of who we are. The sum of our external identities is far less than the whole of our being. True freedom arises when we are not dependent on something outside ourselves for the way we feel about ourselves. The way we feel about ourselves starts with the relationship that we have with ourselves.
We choose the people we hang out with, the things we do, and the stuff we buy. That choice comes from somewhere. The source of that choice is much closer to our identity than the product. To understand our choices we must examine why we do the things that we do.
In experiencing my loss of identity, I could see that many of my actions were motivated by a desire for external recognition. I was either trying to impress others or worried about how they would judge me. However, any situation where my self expression is contingent upon the validation of others is bound to limit me from being myself. And if I’m not being myself, how can I possibly be happy?
True identity is being true to oneself. For me this is cultivating genuine self respect and a willingness to be vulnerable. This makes for a more flexible identity that is based on how I feel about my actions rather than the outcome of my actions. If I feel good then I know my behavior is aligned with values that bring me real happiness.
Since my car-living days, I’ve raised money for my company, moved into a beautiful apartment, and started dating an amazing woman. Am I attached to these things? Absolutely. But I try not to depend on them for how I feel about myself. Most importantly, I’m learning to see myself outside of my circumstances. This hasn’t happened overnight. It’s a process of making small choices that reinforce personal dignity day by day. When my self worth is decoupled from external considerations, I allow for genuine self expression to occur. In this sense, losing identity is really about finding ones true self.
In struggling to find my identity I realized that I create my own identity. This is the most valuable lesson that I have learned. When I let go of the need to define myself, I can choose any definition I want. By accepting that I am not limited by any notion of identity, I liberate myself to just be me. Right here, right now, I am choosing my identity by how I am choosing to spend my time. In this very moment I am creating myself and this is my identity.