Me, Myself and I… Discovering Identity at INSEAD

Louise Ronnerdahl

Less than 100 days left of INSEAD. Reality is kicking in. Recruiters are milling all over campus. Suits and ties, groomed hair and go-getter heels have replaced the relaxed student attire of jeans and a t-shirt. All of a sudden I discover a new side to my classmates, another facet of their identities.

Identity. Such a powerful, yet very ambiguous, word. Our identity was created at birth, and has since that day been with us, wherever we go. 

Still, when I think about my identity, it has a sense of unfamiliarity to it, like something unknown yet to be discovered. 

Not sure if there is such a thing as the right time to discover yourself, but as we are running out of time at INSEAD, faced with those difficult questions about where we want to live, what job we would like and what makes us happy has at least prompted me to look inside for a guiding compass, a way to navigate this myriad of opportunities and choices. 

What if knowing my identity and myself can shape the internal compass? If so, who am I? 

A few years ago I went through a major life change that forced me to start exploring these aspects of myself, and it was probably one of the hardest, yet the most rewarding, experiences I have ever had. As I have come to learn, there are two main parts of ones identity; the external and the internal.

Until a few years ago, the only way I used to see and describe myself was through my external identity. As I later came to realise, I meant I had left a significant part of who I was at the kitchen table every morning.

The external identity is composed of objective definitions like gender, nationality, work, hobbies and relationship status.

Is this me?

For a long time I was Louise, the blonde, Swedish banker living in London, who spent her weekends travelling to new places or in the CrossFit gym. It was easy to define myself that way; I always knew how to introduce myself in a party or a business meeting. But as I soon came to realise, this was only half of the story of me.

Deep inside I felt that something was missing. I was always busy doing things, but yet not fulfilled. Because of the company culture and nature of my work, I fronted a composed façade and hid the bubbly, energetic and emotional sides of me.

At the time I didn’t understand that I had locked up aspects of myself behind bars. I was puzzled as to why my ability to be creative was diminishing and why I constantly felt fatigued. It is called identity-depletion. 

In addition to the lack of stamina, a little inner voice had awoken in my head, and I couldn’t ignore it. It told me to go and change the world and leave a legacy. I suddenly understood knew that my career as a banker was never going to get me there. It was an excruciating, but at the same time a revealing aha-moment. 

I knew I had to break free.

I had to embark on the journey of finding out who I really was, and how I was meant to live. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to start.

I happened to come across an incredibly inspiring TED talk by Janine Shepherd, the Australian Olympic athlete who had a car accident and became paralysed. She talks about the total and excruciating feeling of loss and despair that immerses her when she realises that her body is completely broken. Not until she managed to let go of her former identity captured in her body, she was able to rebuild herself and become a professional pilot. She says: “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be. Flying is the ultimate feeling of true freedom.”

I had to push aside this external identity, so I could find out who I really was.

I suddenly found a source of tremendous creativity from within. Over the course of a few days, I had resigned from the Bank, my relationship fell apart and I had given up my apartment in London.

All of a sudden I had nothing but a vision and a blank canvas.

With no external identity to lean back on, I started for the first time to explore this deeper part of my identity. Who was I, really? I figured that if I could answer those questions, I would be able to identity environment that would make me happy and fulfilled. Simply, where I could be myself. To get inspiration, I started to think about times in my life when I had been really happy, and what made those moments so great. This gave me clues about what really defined me.

I started by writing down words that described how I saw myself and I asked me friends for their views. Some of the words that came out were:

Global. Loving. Disruptive. Attentive. Loud.

Then I thought long and hard about what values were most important to me in life. What are my beliefs, which I will never compromise on, regardless of where I go or who I meet? They cemented how I wanted to treat myself and others;

1) Love 2) Justice 3) Generosity 4) Courage 5) Forgiveness

Finally, I wrote a mission statement about how I wanted to live. It came out like this:

1)   I live to serve other people without compromising on who I am

2)   I shall live with passion and purpose

3)   I will live a life without fear

4)   I will be grateful for what has been given to me

5)   I will let my heart guide my life

Whilst doing this, I realised that I actually knew all along what my identity was about.

All I had to do was to ask myself the right questions. Having it all on paper gave me an anchor, the sense of inner compass that I needed to navigate where to go next, and what decisions to make.

For example, I now knew I wanted to work in an environment with a clear purpose. So I narrowed my options to social impact-related work.

A couple of my core values were love and generosity. So I crossed banking or any types of finance roles off my list.

“I will a live without fear.” What was fear to me? Pushing myself outside my comfort zone and embrace new geographical and cultural contexts. So I decided to focus on Africa.

Is this me?

Not long after, an opportunity to go and work with leadership development at the grassroots of Africa came up. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind. I wholeheartedly knew I was meant to go there.

The personal gain from attaining my goals and working in tune with my capabilities and values has been invaluable in every way. All of a sudden, my head and heart were linked up and life seemed seamless. Easier somehow. Happier.

At INSEAD, we have this wonderful opportunity to explore ourselves. Away from our familiar habitats, we are no longer constrained by the characteristics of our external identity.

In a truly global environment like business school, it shouldn’t matter which country you come from or where you used to work. What truly matters is that you represent yourself and stand up for what you believe is right.

As we are approaching the end of our wonderful journey at INSEAD, we are faced with those significant questions. Where do I want to live? What kind of working environment would make me thrive? Those questions can seem daunting, but instead of looking to what everybody else is doing, giving time to introspection can really help unpicking some of those questions. Like peeling layers off an onion, what sits at your core?

The new me?