Identity Capital: Having a Productive Identity Crisis

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Defining Decade" by Meg Jay. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is identity capital? Can you use your identity capital to your benefit?

Identity capital is the sum of your personal resources. You can develop your identity capital by taking advantage of opportunities, especially in your twenties.

Read more about identity capital and what it means for you.

What Is Identity Capital?

An “identity crisis” is a period of youthful exploration during which a person can collect experiences and try out different paths in life without risk or obligation. It’s an important step toward developing an identity, and it has two main elements: reflection, through which you are thoughtful and aware of your life, and action, through which you collect experiences that help you learn about yourself. This collection of experiences becomes your “identity capital.”

Your identity capital is the collection of things you’ve done long enough or well enough that they become part of who you are. It’s the intangible currency we use to obtain jobs and relationships, and it includes your schools, clubs, jobs, hobbies, degrees, and experiences. 

When having an identity crisis, many people focus more on the reflection piece than the action part, but it’s those who strike a good balance between the two who’ll end up with stronger identities and be more satisfied with their lives: better able to manage stress, more in control of their future, and find themselves following more original, unique paths. Seek out opportunities that will give you meaningful experiences you can learn from. Volunteer with a charity, work as an intern in an industry you’re interested in, or take classes in something you might like to pursue. 

How to Develop Your Capital

While having your identity crisis, you need to be not only reflecting on your life but also actively accumulating experiences that will form your “identity capital”: the sum of your personal resources. Your identity capital is the collection of things you’ve done long enough or well enough that they become part of who you are. It’s the intangible currency we use to obtain jobs and relationships. It includes quantifiable measurements like your schools, clubs, jobs, hobbies, and degrees. It also includes more unquantifiable things like your temperament, how you approach problems, and how you present yourself to the world through your clothes, your vocabulary, and your personality. 

There’s a difference between an entry-level job at a coffee shop and an entry-level job at a film production company, and during your twenties you must actively build your identity capital by seeking out meaningful opportunities rather than place-holding ones. Volunteer with a charity, work as an intern in an industry you’re interested in, or take classes in something you might like to pursue. Avoid unmeaningful experiences that won’t teach you anything and won’t help you build skills.

Twenty-somethings who strike this balance between action and reflection spend their identity crisis accumulating interesting experiences while they are thinking about their path. These people construct stronger identities and end up more satisfied with their lives: better able to manage stress, more in control of their future, and living more original, unique lives. 

Identity Capital: Having a Productive Identity Crisis

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  • Why the twenties are your most important decade
  • How you were fooled into thinking it was an extended period of youth and freedom
  • Why you should use this decade to find personal and professional success

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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