Don't Bask in Reflected Glory

ये जो लोग-बाग हैं, जंगल की आग हैं 
Ye jo log baag hain, Jungle ki aag hain
The people, are jungle fire

क्यूँ आग में जलूँ...
Kyun aag mein jalun
Why should I burn in the fire?

ये नाकाम प्यार में, खुश हैं ये हार में
Ye nakaam pyaar mein, Khush hai yeh haar mein
Defeated in love, they're happy in defeat

इन जैसा क्यूँ बनूँ...
Inn jaisa kyun banun
Why should I be like them?

- Irshad Kamil


I am here to tell you how to keep your identity small. I’ll share what I think is the bare minimum context you need to have:

Why should I keep my Identity small?

Paul Graham explains how keeping your identity small can be a competitive advantage:

The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it’s right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

  1. If you know what is part of someone’s identity, you can avoid inflammatory discussions. This can be as simple as avoiding discussions about which shoe brand is the best?

  2. The bigger advantage is this: Better ideas. The ability to think with lucidity, without biases is an unfair advantage. If you act on rational decisions without attacking someone’s identity, it’s an even bigger advantage which few can compete with.

What do you mean by Identity?

Identity, in the crudest sense are the words (and ideas) that you use to describe yourself - in your head. For instance, while you might be someone who build rocket ships, your identity might be “I am a family man”. Or “I am a craftsman engineer making ships for space travel”

Here is a short mental exercise. Fill this blank with at least 3 small phrases:

I am ___


Awesome. Let’s carry on:

Here is what I came up with a few years ago:

I am {Indian, guy, techie}

The labels in {} are (in the very crude sense) - my identity. Notice that these labels do not always have to be professional, personal or even Truth in the strictest sense.

They don’t have to align with reality in any meaningful way. They simply describe how you perceive yourself.

Want another example? Here is what a friend filled:

I am {smart, get things done, make no excuses}

If you have not filled in your three, please pause - take a quick second and type it down somewhere. I’ll wait.

Cool, I hope you have your three written or typed somewhere accessible. Let’s carry on. We’ll come back to it, I promise.

Don’t Bask in Reflected Glory

That’s it. That is the only thing I want you to do and you will be on your way to learning how do I avoid these labels?

Reflected Glory is the invisible demon which will lead you to the butcher, chop you up into pieces, then slow barbecue you in open air. All this while you and the Demon, both laugh and make merry.

Reflected glory is how Satan wins over honest, smart and hard working people. It is insidious. Sinister. Subtle.

In Professional Circles

Even in certain careers, labeling yourself can be a career limiting move:

If you call yourself a programmer, someone is already working on a way to get you fired - from Don’t Call Yourself a Programmer by @patio11

And why are otherwise honest people, so deeply tempted to label themselves professionally?

The best people in most professions are incredibly talented and (often enough) make good money. The professional label is aspirational.

The worse off are your professional skills, the more you need to riff on the shared professional identity of amazing folk in your profession.

Here is an important nuance which I constantly remind myself of:

Stop calling yourself a programmer

Don’t bask in Reflected Glory

Keep your identity small

In Politics

“People like us … " - wait, go deeper and think. Your mental dialog will begin: “What does he mean by us? I am nobody. Why does a nobody matter? Is he using my emotions as a stepping stone to get where he wants to go?”

The politician is tricking you into filling in the gaps he left. What do you will fill this with? What makes best sense for you, from your own identity.

He is hacking your identity to make most profit for him. Don’t waste your energy. When making rich people richer, get something in return.

But why does this trope work in the first place?

Well, because somewhere in your identity - you allowed words like Indian, American, Patriot or Nationalist to creep in.

Why did you allow them in the first place? Because there are actually positive connotations of being a part of the world’s largest and most powerful democracy respectively.


You walked into my trap.

You basked in the reflected glory of your ancestors.

Both America and India are countries born of blood, sweat and tears. Not enough of which is yours. You haven’t done anything meaningfully large to contribute to democracy.

You are basking in the reflected glory of your dead ancestors

Be grateful. Use them as your ideals.

For the sake of good that is oft interred with bones, don’t bask in glory of your dead ancestors

Do the work that when you meet your ideals, they can be proud

Do the work such that you can be proud

Don’t bask in reflected glory

Keep your identity small

In Casual Conversation

“Look at Michael, an Olympic athlete, I knew him in college” - wait, and think. You might end up going this way: “Why is that relevant in this conversation? Is this an offer to make an intro to the Olympian, so that I improve my game? Or is this just banter-bragging? And why brag?”

Brag about achievements of someone you know. Or worked with. Or went to school with.

Everyone around you looks at you for a brief moment of envy, or pride if they love you.

They could have been proud of something you did. And instead they’re proud that you know people who do things. You are basking in the reflected glory of others.

The first time I internalized this perspective, I was deeply embarrassed.

Given that you’ve read this piece so far, I hope something for you.

I hope that when you go to sleep tonight - you will sleep with the resolution to not bask in reflected glory of your friends and family.

No matter how much you love them. You will be proud of them. And you will not bask in their glory. Don’t bask in their reflected glory.

It’s their spotlight and you will not even a light a candle to steal that

Your Three

Remember the three blanks we filled? Those are the your borrowed labels. No matter how innocent, they cloud your judgment.

Those are the ideas - and people whose reflected glory you are stealing unknowingly

Even the Get things done is basking under the reflected glory of people who actually get things done. It clutters your thinking by making you swing for the extremes. By not letting you slow down.

It might be quite some time before my friend sees that it’s about the getting the right things done.

That we are human beings, not human doings.

The moon waxes and wanes because it basks in reflected glory - but even the darkest clouds cannot hide the glory of sun

When your contributions are meaningful enough, you don’t need borrowed glory. The sun shines it’s own light, it’s the moon that steals light