I've been working to rebuild my identity over the past few weeks and and there are some very real challenges in achieving such a rebuild. The process is so abstract, confusing and lacks a clear process: there is no playbook on how you rebuild an identity!
I think about that within the context of me here in Lisbon, in this new city, where I can decide who I want to be next, but it's also a big question: “Who are you?” and “Who do you want to be next?” There’s not a single, definitive answer.
So to gain some clarity about identity and transformation I reflected on Hollywood, acting, and James Bond... as a metaphor to better understand this process and from that metaphor, abstracted a three layered framework on identity. Hopefully, using James Bond is also a fun and familiar touch point for us too.
In the first layer of identity, there’s the character of James Bond. We see this most clearly in the many novels and the many movies that he's been featured in. We’ve seen how this character has evolved and we know his escapades across many decades and generations.
We know this identity in the aggregate, through all of these stories: an identity with recognizable consistency and unchangability. This is the first and highest level: Character.
At the second level, there's the role of James Bond, which is specific to a particular story, a particular situation, a particular time period, a particular place. He responds differently in each particular setting. This is the second layer of identity, and it’s more temporal, changeable, depending on the setting: Role.
Part of that change, surprise and inventiveness is why we enjoy the story of James Bond. This stands in contrast to the first layer of identity, which lets us expect certain things from "James Bond" and that eternal consistency is the Character.
Finally at the lowest level, there is the actor or actors playing James Bond. Over the decades, we’ve seen the actors in each movie change, with each one bringing a different style to the character as well. Furthermore, each actor also changes over time as a person and as an actor…
With each chance to play James Bond, the actors grow more skillful, more empathetic, and maybe able to bring more maturity to the fulfillment of the role/character of James Bond too. And in doing so, our external perception of James Bond is evolving as well, and may even inspire the writers & directors to push and change the narrative of the Character (at the highest level). This is to say that there is an interaction between the Actor and the Character, which allows for growth, adaptation and a deeper understanding of the character as well.
What does this have to do with our rebuild? Well, we can use this three-part framework to look at ourselves, to look at who we are at the highest level, the character of us… reflecting on how we got here, what our trajectory is, and what our character arc might be. We can also zoom further out and reflect on the deepest, unchanging, eternal part of our identity.
Using that as an anchor, we can then start to look at the second tier: the roles that we play. Who are we in a particular situation? In a particular place? A particular time period? With particular people? To make this clearer, I think about myself in Shanghai, when I was a trainer and facilitator in a workshop for clients, with the goal of trying to bring order to the creative chaos of the workshop. I can also see that this is no longer the role I play. The temporal and changing nature of this second layer is worth highlighting again.
Finally, we arrive at the third and lowest layer of identity: the actor. Admittedly, this is where it gets a little strange, but I imagine myself as an actor playing the role, playing the character. I imagine the oddness and the freshness in having someone else play my role… or if I was an actor playing the role of someone else. Very quickly, the different qualities of both situations become clear.
To make this even more specific or realistic, we can imagine if we were to suddenly get a promotion in our job, or suddenly put into a new role. We would each “play” that role differently, than how others might have played it: the idea of filling someone else's shoes. There are certain expectations with a certain role, of a certain character.
To push this idea even further: what if you played your role differently? Now that we see identity as flexible and changeable as James Bond has been over the years, we’re free to imagine and flex our creative muscles in a way, free to express ourselves differently!
This three-part framework is just a framework. It’s just a lens, a very weird and fun lens to look at identity. Admittedly, this whole exercise is a bit bizarre because we are real people living real lives and we don't typically think of ourselves in this fictional way. But I believe it is particularly relevant for those of us working to rebuild our identity, because again this process is confusing, abstract and lacking a specific playbook!
So hopefully, this framework gives you both a sense of structure and also a sense of freedom in distinguishing our many selves. It asks us to consider where the power of identity resides: is it the actor? Is it the role? Is it the character? And in this separation, we can more clearly think about the construction of our narrative, how we’re playing our story, playing our Role, and also think about our evolution as an Actor. It lets us reflect on the primacy of our identity and hopefully lets us regain some agency in our “story.”
Ultimately, we are still creating our identity... an identity in a story that is yet to be written... played by an actor who is always growing, evolving, rebuilding.
If you are still following along, this framework offers just the beginning of our creativity. It inspires further thought about authorship and ownership over our story. It asks us “how are you defining and writing the next chapter, the next novel, in the next phase of your life?
Of course, the framework can be extended even further… thinking of our identity as a movie set or theatre play and us as the director: “how are you going to direct the actor to play your role?”
And again, this is a wonderful lens to look at the storytelling of our life, career, and brand. Hopefully, it allows us to imagine new shifts in identity!
What do you think? Where does this framework take you? Where are you in your process in rebuilding your identity?
This write up is a summary of this video reflection:
It’s still early in my transformation, but let’s see where this takes us!