Whether it be a creator urging viewers to romanticise their life or a way to hack our morning routines, the pursuit of personal optimisation is almost ubiquitous across TikTok. New ways to be more productive, efficient, well-rounded and positive fill the FYP every time we open up the app. The latest way to better yourself? Invest in your identity capital.
When thinking of the word ‘capital’, money likely jumps to mind. However, in addition to financial capital, there are a number of other less tangible assets people can accrue throughout their lives. Coined by Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now, she defines identity capital as “our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are.”
I was really struck by the pressure they feel under to post a ‘perfect’ version of themselves, not just in terms of beautifully composed, curated and edited photos but also as happy, positive, well-rounded, with all the right kinds of knowledge, taste, political views.
ROSALIND GILL, Feminist cultural theorist
Some of these assets may be on our resumes — think degrees, jobs and qualifications — while others are personal, including the people we meet, the interests we have, and the things we care about. As the latest way to self-optimise, the term has recently blown up on TikTok with the hashtag #identitycapital garnering over 177.7K views. “You guys need to stop obsessing over your GPA and picking the right major and start obsessing over identity capital," says Dellara Gorjian, a California-based lawyer, in a video that has since racked up 609.4K views. "Be an interesting bitch."
The crux of the idea behind identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace, particularly in our 20s, is the currency we use to purchase jobs, relationships and other things we want. As such, identity capital is an important investment in who you are and who you want to be. Some of the most commonly cited examples of identity capital-building activities include travel, building a business, and learning a new skill.
We need to be present for life to not go by as quickly. It's obvious why goal setting is attractive but sometimes those goals can lack purpose, be a version of someone else's life you like the look of and are often unsustainable.
Zoe Mallet, PSYCHOLOGIST
However, society’s tendency to commodify everything – even our personalities – has meant the term has been met with some backlash. Capitalism and productivity-chasing have seeped so far into our personal lives that liking stuff and doing things for the sake of enjoying our lives are no longer enough – instead, we must harness our existence in the hope of appealing to employers.
“The language used is revealing,” explains sociologist and feminist cultural theorist Rosalind Gill. “It is suffused with economic concepts such as branding and investment and value-adds and marketing. It represents the stealth takeover of economistic ways of seeing human beings. It also represents what I and others discuss as the increasingly psychologised face of neoliberalism, where we see neoliberal values not just in political and economic policies but in the whole way we are supposed to think about ourselves. Everything becomes instrumentalised; in this way, we lose some key aspects of being human.”
While there are indeed some interesting takeaways from the idea of identity capital, the trend of management speak being grafted onto normal human existence in many ways is harmful to our sense of self-worth. Survival in today’s job market, where workers are more disposable than ever, requires that we become faster, smarter and more interesting. If and when we come up short, that is in turn perceived as a personal failure, regardless of gender, race, class or disability, rather than a reflection of the market’s brutality.
This has come up in Gill’s research, particularly regarding those between their late teens and late twenties. “I was really struck by the pressure they feel under to post a ‘perfect’ version of themselves, not just in terms of beautifully composed, curated and edited photos but also as happy, positive, well-rounded, with all the right kinds of knowledge, taste, political views,” adds Gill. “It is almost like the personal statement you have to write to get into college – but it is every single day of your life. Obviously, it is classed and racialised too, privileging people with money and other capitals who can have the right year overseas, get the right internships, afford to attend the right demonstrations/protests etc.”
In a world where opportunities are hard to come by and the pandemic has only widened the gap between rich and poor, self-help has become a beacon of hope. With the cost of living going up and inequality on the rise, the idea that we can improve ourselves enough to score a top-notch job has become more appealing than ever. It's easy to fear being left behind in a society that values speed and efficiency above all else, and where falling behind can have dire consequences. If optimising ourselves is no longer just a passing trend, but a crucial factor in our economic success, how can we choose to live any other way?
“The idea that creating goals and practices will get you to the things you want quicker and more efficiently means we often focus on the outcome,” explains coach and psychologist, Zoe Mallet. “We need to be present for life to not go by as quickly. It's obvious why goal setting is attractive but sometimes those goals can lack purpose, be a version of someone else's life you like the look of and are often unsustainable.”
Self-optimising can be addictive, Mallet explains. “It can become dangerous because we can tunnel vision on those particular goals and that means that other areas of our lives can drop off that we also need to keep us healthy. You can be more prone to heightened emotions of anxiety, fear or disgust, which will move you further away from growth while in an obsessive state.”
While there is no question that building identity capital and seeking out unique experiences is beneficial, particularly for those at the start of their careers, seeing ourselves through the lens of capitalism is neither healthy nor sustainable. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value and life doesn’t need to be a continual self-improvement project. Instead, start a new hobby or book a holiday, secure in the knowledge that it does not need to improve you in any quantifiable way.