Every employer I’ve worked at since college has changed its identity at least once. Companies do this for a lot of reasons. Usually, it’s because of mergers and acquisitions. Or the old identity has gotten dated and no longer fits. At a couple of places where I worked, it was because of a lawsuit from another company that has the same or a similar name. At one company, we even had to change the metadata of source files. About a year later, the companies hashed out an agreement, and we had to change back to our previous name.
My current company recently changed its name to one that better fits what we do and where we want to go. This got me thinking: What does it mean to change your identity?
Companies aren’t the only ones that change their name. My alma mater was called Valley State College when it opened in 1958. Long before I went there, the school joined the California State University system and became California State University Northridge. The name reflects the school’s status as a community institute for higher learning where people can earn Bachelor’s and advanced degrees. My high school also changed its name when it became a charter school. It’s now Reseda Charter High School with magnet programs, and it goes from grades 6–12. It’s a much different place from when I went there in the 1970s.
People change their names too. My wife changed her name when we were married. This required visits to government offices and calls to banks and credit card companies to update driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, and account information—and this was before there were websites to do this online. She now has had her married name longer than her maiden name.
Changes of identity can be subtle. I’m Matt around my family, friends, and coworkers. But at writing events, I call myself Matthew (to go along with my writing name, Matthew Arnold Stern). I also prefer Matthew when I’m in the San Fernando Valley because that’s what I was called when I was growing up there. Matt is more of an Orange County name because I started calling myself that when I moved here. I now feel strange when I’m called Matthew where I’m used to be called Matt and vice versa.
That’s because identity goes beyond what we call ourselves. It’s how we see ourselves in the world and how we feel at the moment. Do we want to be taken seriously or put someone at ease? Do we want to stand out from the crowd or be one of the guys? If your name comes from a different culture, do you embrace it to show pride in your heritage, or do you change it in hopes you might fit in?
Identity is powerful. It sets expectations, reflects our values, and describes the communities we’re in—or want to be part of. They tell others—and ourselves—who we are. But identities need to be protected. We do that by keeping our promises, conducting ourselves ethically, and being a positive influence. A good identity is valuable, but a tarnished name is worse than worthless. (Just ask Twitter, er, I mean X.)
If you’re not happy with your identity, you can change it. It doesn’t have to be as big as changing your name. You can change the outfits you wear, try a new hairstyle, or get yourself in shape. You can take up a new hobby. Further your education. Work on that creative project you’ve been putting off. Upgrade your conduct and demeanor.
Your identity is a reflection of yourself, and your actions and behavior establish your identity. It’s a loop with one building on the other. Think about your identity and see if it matches who you want to be. If companies can invest to upgrade their identity, you can put in the effort to improve yours.