In a recent interview, the artist William Kentridge described becoming another person when standing back from a work in progress and becoming a critical director of the other person’s work. He talked about ‘constructing myself from yesterday’s dream and tomorrow’s expectation’. I have had similar experiences when I am speaking to an audience, lecturing to students or making a presentation at a conference. I mentally stand back from the speaking self and the other self reviews what is happening and sometimes starts mind-wandering triggered by something said by the speaking self or a reaction from the audience. I talk about ‘self’ when I am lecturing on leadership as part of our Continuous Professional Development programme [see ‘On being a leader’ on October 13th, 2021]. I am often asked what is meant by ‘self’ and ‘identity’, particularly in the context of Kegan’s scheme of cognitive development [see ‘Illusion of self’ on February 2nd, 2017]. I sense that students are often dissatisfied with my answers. So, let me attempt a written answer here. A dictionary definition of ‘self’ is ‘the entire being of an individual that constitutes the individuality and identity of a person’. In psychology, it might be defined as ‘the totality of the individual, consisting of all characteristic attributes, conscious and unconscious, mental and physical.’ A dictionary definition of ‘identity’ is ‘the distinguishing character or personality of an individual’ and in sociology it is ‘the qualities, beliefs, personality traits, appearance and, or experiences that characterise a person’. Hence, combining these definitions, identity is the attributes that characterise your ‘self’ and distinguishes you from others. Kegan’s schema implies that our sense of self develops through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood to the extent that some people (about 35%) can separate their relationships and identity from their self and hence are capable of more nuanced decision-making – this is known as the Institutional stage. About one percent of the population develop to a further stage, known as the Interindividual stage, where they are capable holding many identities and handling the resultant paradoxes that arise, which can help them to exercise both emotion and rationality as leaders. I think that self is closely related to our consciousness and consequently is constructed from yesterday’s experiences and tomorrow’s dreams to misquote Kentridge. So, perhaps it is reasonable to think that we construct, or at least evolve, a self each day as we engage in different roles, for example in my case as a teacher, researcher, university leader or family member. I suspect that it is my researcher self that sits on the shoulder of my teacher self and mind-wanders while my teacher self talks about something else. My experiences and dreams in each role are different, divergent even, and means that I have at least two selves that exist towards opposite ends of the ‘Change Style Indicator and have different qualities as well as experiences.
Peter Aspden, ‘The self is a construction we make every day: Lunch with the FT – William Kentridge’, 22 October / 23 October 2022.
Kegan, R., The evolving self: problem and process in human development, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Longman Dictionary of the English Language, Harlow, UK: Longman Group Limited, 1984.