In a fascinating talk at a recent Connect Silicon Valley Engage event, Tolu Odulesi, a senior program manager at Google, addressed the issue of identity by looking at patterns into which people often fall and by describing his journey in finding his true identity.
A History of Excellence and a Crisis of Identity
Tolu is a Nigerian-born senior manager at Google. He grew up in a family that valued academic excellence. At an early age, he identified himself by what he accomplished. And he accomplished much. He earned top honors from high school, graduated as valedictorian from college, and achieved a 4.0 average as an MBA student. Also, he has had successful tenures in technical positions at Motorola and Apple, before joining Google, where his record of key accomplishments has continued.
Those accomplishments, however, often left him feeling empty. He didn’t know who he was. Was his life defined simply by accomplishing one thing after another, or was there more? He was having a crisis of identity.
Three Common Areas of Identity
Tolu looked at three common ways people define themselves; that is, the patterns of life into which they fall.
One common way people find identity, Tolu says, is by defining themselves by “what they have or possess.” “It is a thirst for recognition or success or wealth or comfort, says Tolu.” He believes that what drives identity in what I have or possess is the fear of not having enough and leads to unhealthy stress. “Regardless of your status or where you might be, it is an identity that can drive you to the ground because it leads to no long-lasting satisfaction.”
Another common way many find identity, is by “what people say about me,” states Tolu. Along with this common type of identity, he says, “comes a fear of rejection.” “Trying to live up to what people say about us is a terrible burden.” Social media addiction contributes to the burden. What happens when we stumble, when people reject us, or when we see people who are better than we are? “It colors everything we do. There is no authenticity. It is like a rat race”, says Tolu.
A third common form of identity is: “I am what I do.” “It is anchored by the search for significance. I want my life to matter, and it doesn’t matter whether we are in the corporate world or taking mission trips. These are burdens that don’t help. No matter what we do, there will always be someone who is better, and whatever you do, you may not be able to do that again.”
Tolu’s Crisis of Identity
Tolu’s burden was this third form of identity – by what he did and accomplished, including academic excellence and corporate productivity. But some “painful brushes with reality” cracked his identity.
His first brush with reality came after delivering a valedictorian speech at his college graduation. “I gave the talk, everyone clapped, but I felt empty. I was in a daze. I asked myself, ‘Is this it? Is this what I get for studying so much?’”
Following college, Tolu went on to work at Motorola, where he did well, then got a Master’s Degree in Software Engineering, followed by an MBA at Rollins College in Florida, where he earned a 4.0 average, and again, graduated as valedictorian. But this was Tolu’s second brush with reality that broke his identity by what he did.
In spite of his academic excellence, he couldn’t find a job and hated having to tell people that he was not able to find work. He went five months without a job, except for a part-time job on campus.
“This is when the structure of my identity really began crumbling.” He asked himself, “What does my life mean. Why is my life this way?” He admits to often breaking down and crying during this time.
Tolu’s crisis with identity also began to crack his relationship with God. As a long-time follower of Jesus and one who defined his life by “doing,” he often read his Bible, frequently prayed, and attended church regularly. But it wasn’t working. He didn’t have a job he wanted and felt unsatisfied.
Upon reflection, however, Tolu sees his struggle as a “mercy in disguise.” “ It made me confront what I was doing with my life. I didn’t have answers, but I knew the way I was defining myself was wrong.”
A New, True Identity
Tolu’s thinking on success changed when he began engaging a community of fellow Christians who he noticed were defining success differently than he was. “I often celebrated successes but hid failure.”
In this group of Christians, he says, “There was humility, an openness with how they defined success and, more importantly, failure. I noticed in their lives that they truly relied on God. They could experience failures and not be undone. They could handle not getting to their goals, and it wasn’t the end of life. They valued relationships with their families more, and with their relationship with God more. This was a turning point for me.”
Tolu found that he had to find a different way to define himself than by his accomplishments. “And it had to be something outside of me. It wasn’t enough to define myself by my strength, by the sweat of my brow or the strength of my back…and it had to sustain itself in different circumstances and situations. It had to go beyond that.”
What Tolu found was that he had to counter the common way people define themselves and the way he was defining himself – not by what he had (intellectual prowess), not by what people were saying about him and not by what he did and his accomplishments.
A Beloved Child of God
Tolu went through a process through which he found a new identity. He now defines himself “as a beloved child of God.” It is his reliance on God where he now sees his value. “I see that the love of God supremely shown on the cross of Christ, as the basis and the answer to the fear that was driving me to define myself by what I possess by what people are saying about me, and by what I was doing.”
Tolu suggests that by reflecting on two areas, we can discover our true identity.
Reflecting on Success and Failure
First, is by considering our response to success and failure. Are we overly proud of our accomplishments and devastated by our failures? We should look at what we value, at our motivations, and the patterns of our lives. He notes that everyone goes through a process of formation, a process of “becoming” who we are as a person.
Tolu says that failures are some of the most poignant experiences that helped him understand his identity. How he deals with failures, helps him understand better the person he is becoming. Since understanding that his identity is in God, he is not devastated when he fails. Yes, he has goals and aspirations but takes comfort knowing that he is a child of God and that God loves him, no matter what.
Reflecting on Death
The second area upon which to reflect, suggests Tolu is death. “Death is an impending reality that we all have to face.” No one escapes death. “In the end, what I have, what people say about me, what I am doing doesn’t matter.” There is a restlessness behind those ways of defining ourselves and is not sustainable. ”We know instinctively, says Tolu, “that there is more to life.”
Finding Our True Identity
Tolu asserts that there is a better way to find our identity. In expressing the key for him, he paraphrases St. Augustine, “You Oh Lord have made us for yourselves, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
He believes that we find our true identity by seeking God and by anchoring our lives on Him. “When God becomes our underpinning, we have an identity that transcends ourselves – our circumstances, situations and our successes, and failures.” Our value, Tolu concludes is not found in what we have, not found in what people say about us, or in our family background, or in what we do and our accomplishments. We find our true value in God.
Click HERE to view highlights of Tolu’s talk. (less than 2 minutes)
Click HERE to viewTolu’s full talk and Q&As (approximately 51 minutes)