Hello, who are you? What’s your story, coding glory? What are you good at, what do you like doing and what do you value? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? Tell me about your education and who you are. What unique talents are you finding and developing during your education? How are you striving to become the best possible version of you? Having good self knowledge will help you answer these big questions, which are important for your future. Knowing your future depends on knowing who you are now. 🏆
Knowing who you are now, will help you explore and understand who you might become in the future. That future you is the best possible version of you shown in 2.1. Education allows you to explore those versions of your identity but only a fraction of your education will happen during lectures, labs, tutorials and seminars see figure 2.2
Figure 2.2: According to Stephen Fry, Education is the sum of what students teach each other in between lectures and seminars. (Fry 2010) Fry is referring to studying humanities rather than science or engineering, but makes an important point about education. At University you will learn as much from your peers via peer learning, peer instruction, peer support and informal learning as you will from your professors. Public domain portrait of Fry at Winfield House in 2016 by the US Embassy in London w.wiki/4wrn
Your identity, who you are, is complex, dynamic and high-dimensional so you need to use different techniques to develop better self-awareness.
Your protected characteristics
Some of your identity includes characteristics that are protected. In the UK, the Equality Act of 2010 protects you from discrimination at work or in education, based on what are known as “protected characteristics”. (UK 2020a). This means that:
- Your age should not determine how you are treated
- Your disabilities should not determine how you are treated
- Your gender should not determine how you are treated (Saini 2018; Damore 2017; Lewis 2017; Bates 2016)
- Your gender re-assignment should not determine how you are treated
- Your marriage or civil partnership should not determine how you are treated
- Your pregnancy and maternity should not determine how you are treated
- Your race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin) should not determine how you are treated (Eddo-Lodge 2017; Saini 2019)
- Your religion or beliefs should not determine how you are treated
- Your sex should not determine how you are treated (Price 2019)
- Your sexual orientation should not determine how you are treated (Britton 2019)
These are an important part of your identity you are familiar with, but take note, these parts of your identity are special because they are protected.
Gender is something many people believe they understand, but most people actually don’t. One way to understand gender better is to break it down into four characteristics:
Identity: your gender identity
Expression: your gender expression
Sex: your biological sex
Attraction: your sexual and romantic orientation
These protected characteristics are often conflated, because people tend to confuse gender, sex and sexual orientation. They are not the same thing as shown in equation (2.1)
Identity ≠ Expression ≠ Sex ≠ Attraction
Lets have a look at each of those in turn:
Identity 🧠 is who you know yourself to be in your own head. Gender identity is based on how much you align (or don’t align) with the options for gender based on your psychological sense of self. This includes, but is not limited to:
Expression 🎨 is how you demonstrate your gender based on gender roles through the ways that you act, dress, behave and interact. These are not exclusive categories, you might choose to express yourself in all three ways including:
Sex ⚧️ is often conflated with gender. Sometimes called anatomical sex or physical sex, your biological sex is objectively measurable using features such as your genitalia, chromosomes (your sex-determination system
XY etc), hormones, body hair, ovaries and testes. Your biological sex includes, but is not limited to:
Attraction ❤️ is who you are physically, spiritually and emotionally attracted to. Like biological sex, sexual orientation is often conflated with gender but isn’t always a component of gender. We categorise the attraction we experience in gendered ways. Your sexual orientation includes, but is not limited to:
These characteristics are summarised in the genderbread person shown in figure 2.3
Figure 2.3: Decomposing gender into its components of identity (woman-ness & man-ness), attraction (romantically and sexually), expression (feminity and masculinity) and sex (female-ness & male-ness). Genderbread Person v4.0 (uncopyright) by Sam Killerman at genderbread.org and itspronouncedmetrosexual.com
Gender is probably more complicated than you realised, but the framework above will help you understand it better or help you explain the subtleties to someone else by breaking a complicated concept into bite-sized, digestible pieces.
What’s your story, coding glory?
The protected characteristics described above are the part of your story you’ll be most aware of. But there’s much more to your story than these characteristics. We’re hardwired to love storytelling because it help us understand our world, see figure 2.4. We use stories to organise and communicate, so knowing your story is a crucial part of knowing who you are. What’s your story, coding glory? (Gallagher 1995)
Figure 2.4: Storytelling is an ancient art and who doesn’t love a good story? As a species Homo sapiens, we need to tell and hear stories to understand the world around us. What’s your story, coding glory? Public domain image of a painting by John Everett Millais, with a seafarer telling the story of what happened out at sea, via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3VHM
Self-awareness, understanding who you are, is important for leading a healthy and happy life, and likely to be an important factor in your future success. One way to develop better self-awareness is to think about the finer details of your story. (Box and Mocine-McQueen 2019) How did you get here, where are you going, what has inspired you? Who is the authentic you? (Ware 2011) What are your hopes and dreams? By starting to answer these questions you will gain a better understanding of who you are. This includes strengths, weaknesses, motivation and values. (Bolles 2019)
Your story is probably complex but you need to know it so you can distill the details of it into much shorter stories on your job applications described in section 7.6. Things to think about are:
- Characters: who are the key people in your story so far?
- Settings: where have your stories taken place?
- Action, conflict and change : what has changed you and how?
- Emotions: how did you feel at the time, sad, happy, excited?
Head, heart, hands
Another technique for building your self-awareness is to reflect on your knowledge, values and skills. In Waldorf education and Montessori education this is characterised as “head, heart and hands” outlined below and in figure 2.5 (Easton 1997)
Head: What do you know?
Heart: What do you value, what motivates you?
Hands: What can you do? What have you done so far? What will you do with your skills in the future? Your actions define your impact, see chapter 18
Figure 2.5: What knowledge do you have (head)? What are your values (heart)? What skills and experience do you have (hands)? Head, heart, hands sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND
Answering these questions will help you understand your story.
Ikigai: Reason for Being
Many of the learning outcomes described above are non-trivial. You may have good self-awareness and be able to describe aspects of who you are in a matter of minutes. Other personality traits make take longer to uncover. You can develop better self-awareness by describing four attributes shown in Figure 2.6, together these are known as your ikigai (生き甲斐) or “reason for being”.
- what do you love doing?
- what are you good at?
- what does the world need?
- what can you be paid for?
Figure 2.6: Reasons for being, a concept in Japanese known as ikigai. According to ikigai, the most meaningful life lies at the intersection of four sets: (1) What you are good at, (2) What you love, (3) What the world needs and (4) What you can get paid for. What do you have in each of these sets and what are on your personal intersections? Ikigai sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND
You’ll be lucky if you can find activities at the intersection of all four sets shown Figure 2.6. In practice, you may realistically only be able to achieve one, two or three intersections. That said, it’s still a valuable exercise to think about what is in each set for you.
Take a sheet of paper, draw the four overlapping rings shown in Figure 2.6, and spend five to ten minutes adding things in each ring.
- What are your values?
- What motivates you?
- Are there things you like doing that you aren’t particularly good at?
- Why does that make them enjoyable?
Thinking about your ikigai will clarify your knowledge of yourself. Some parts of your identity are so important that they are protected by legislation, in the UK and in other countries. The next section looks at those.
Completing a personality profile may help you develop better self awareness. A good place to start is by answering 16 short questions at icould.com/buzz-quiz. Which animal are you?
There are lots of tools for personality profiling which go into more depth by asking you a lot more than 16 questions. Some of these services are free such as:
Your University may also pay a subscription for personality profiling services, check with your careers service for details.
If you have privileges, it is important to recognise and acknowledge any advantages these have given you in life. They are a key part of your identity and who you are. If you don’t recognise your privileges then you don’t know yourself. Ask yourself honestly, what privileges do you have? For example, is it just your skills and knowledge that have got you into higher education, or have you been fortunate?
If you’re struggling to think of any privileges, see section 2.4.4 for some suggestions.
Being mindful of any privileges that you have is not just a part of your identity. Being grateful for those privileges is beneficial for your mental health too, see the discussion of section 3.4.
Deathbed thought experiment
Imagine for a moment you are on your deathbed. Not at some point in the future, but right now. Your heart (see figure 2.8), which has served you well until now, starts behaving strangely. You start having palpitations and worry what’s going on with the muscle responsible for keeping you alive. Worst case scenario is, your time is up. This happened to me and its a useful thought experiment to force you to think about what matters in your life. (Hull 2021c)
Figure 2.8: One day your heart will stop beating, hopefully not for a long time yet, but it will happen. If you live for an average length of time, your heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times. Now imagine your heart will stop beating in a weeks time. As you reflect on your life, would you have any regrets? If so, what would they be? This deathbed thought experiment will force you to think about who you are and what you value. Computer generated cross section 3D model of the human heart via Wikimedia Commons by DrJanaOfficial at w.wiki/36zc
One of the things you’ll probably want to do is reflect on your life and wonder:
- What did you achieve?
- Do you have any regrets, if so what are they?
- What would you change if you could carry on living?
This can be a useful technique for forcing you to think about who you are and what you value. If you find this activity difficult, see section 2.4.1 for some hints.
Co-founder of desana.io Michael Cockburn argues that you should “make decisions as if you were on your deathbed”. (Cockburn 2022) Remember that you have to die. Memento mori. Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die? Instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know you realise that life goes fast. It’s hard to make the good things last. (Coyne et al. 2002)
Let’s pause here. Insert a breakpoint in your
code and slowly step through it so we can examine the current values of your variables and parameters.
This chapter has looked at some big issues around identity, by inviting you to think about some fundamental questions. Another way to think about these questions is as coding challenges. They are non-trivial questions to answer, it might take you weeks, months or even years to answer some of them. But they are worth spending time thinking about
- What are your values?
- What makes you happy?
- What do you want to get from your time at University?
- What do you want after University?
- Where do you see yourself in \(x\) years time?
- What are your privileges (if any), see section 2.4.4
The signposts in the next section may help tackle some of these coding challenges.
Signposts from here on identity
This chapter challenges you to reflect on who you are and what you’re good at. We’ve only scratched the surface, so if you want to dig deeper you’ll find the following resources useful:
- The Top Five Regrets of the Dying
- What Colour is Your Parachute?
- How Your Story Sets You Free
- A range of books about privilege
Your dying regrets?
One of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (Ware 2011) is that people wish they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, and not a life that others expected of them. Figuring out exactly who your authentic self is can be challenging. Bronnie Ware’s book might help, it has some very moving, personal and insightful true stories of the regrets that people have that will illuminate your own values. The top five regrets, outlined in the book are:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- I wish that I had let myself be happier
You need to be courageous to live a regret-free life but the alternative is to die full of regret, see Bronnie’s video in figure 2.9.
Figure 2.9: Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware explains the top five regrets of the dying. (Ware 2017) Bronnie learned a lot from looking after people on their deathbeds, then wrote it all down in a fantastic book (Ware 2011). The image in the figure is a screenshot, you can watch the two minute video here at youtu.be/nayz3xJxRTA
Colouring your parachute
Since first being published in 1972, over ten million copies of What Colour is Your Parachute? have been sold. It has been translated into 20 languages and is used in 26 countries. What is good about Parachute is that it has some useful self-inventory exercises that go beyond the introductory ones in this guidebook, particularly in the context of your future career. While the style and examples can be U.S. centric, it’s a classic self-help book that looks at a broad variety of issues around job hunting. The author, Richard Nelson Bolles was a Harvard educated chemical engineer and he once explained how you can’t possibly decide what to do in five years time in the video in figure 2.10. Where do you see yourself in five years time? is a question some interviewers like to ask.
Figure 2.10: Where will you be five years from now? Best-selling author of Colouring Your Parachute Dick Bolles discusses the gaps between education and employment. (Bolles 2014) The image in the figure is a screenshot, you can watch the full 32 minute talk at youtu.be/oeP6Pm3Xf-8
What’s your story?
A useful technique for developing self-awareness is to think about what your story is. Heather Box and Julian Mocine-McQueen’s book How Your Story Sets You Free (Box and Mocine-McQueen 2019) takes a storytelling approach to help you gain a better picture of who you are and what you value. What’s good about this book is its short, less than 100 pages and contains practical exercises which extend those in this chapter.
Check your privileges
Reflecting on your identity should lead you to check any privileges you might have. Being grateful for any privileges you may have is also beneficial for your mental health which we talk about in chapter 3 so:
If you think you got to where you are purely because of your talents, think again: there’s good evidence to show that luck plays a much bigger role than many of us would like to imagine. (Pluchino, Biondo, and Rapisarda 2018) Luck is as much a part of your identity as your talents.
There is a lot more to your identity than your race, class, gender and sexual orientation, see your protected characteristics in section 2.2.1.
Summarising self awareness
Too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)? Here’s a summary:
Know thyself was one of three maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, in ancient Greece, see figure 2.11. It’s still an important maxim thousands of years later. To know thy future, you must first know thyself.
Figure 2.11: Know thyself was an important maxim ancient Greece, written on temples like this one in Delphi. How well do you actually know yourself? Picture of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by Edward Knapczyk on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5MEp adapted using the Wikipedia App
This chapter has looked at knowing yourself and who you are. Being self aware, understanding your strengths and weaknesses is key to getting what you need from your future. Questions about your identity are non-trivial, hopefully this chapter has started you thinking about who you are, what motivates you and what you want out of life. You will need to keep revisiting these questions about your identity because some aspects of your identity may change over time.
What do you know and what don’t you know about yourself, see figure 2.12? These fundamental design questions you’ll need to address when you starting building your future. We touched on understanding any privileges you may have as being important for understanding who you are but also in being beneficial for your mental health.
In the next chapter, we’ll look at mental health in more detail.