Identity is one of the most intricate, mysterious and multi-faceted aspects of human existence. It’s the ID card we carry around, but it’s also our job title. It’s the driver’s license in our wallets, along with our family name. It’s shaped by how other people perceive us—and how we think of ourselves. And it takes place both in the real world and online, where our digital identity encompasses everything from how we consume products to how we share images of ourselves to how we interact with other people. Identity is the core of who we truly are.
Terry Crews has been thinking a lot about this topic lately. As a celebrity in areas ranging from athletics to acting to advocacy, his own identity is seen as many things to many people, and Terry has unique insights on identity and how to stay true to your own character. In the latest Hello User podcast, we met to talk about the complexity of identity, how to be authentic, what it takes to get into character, and why respecting one another is important. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Takeaway #1: Identities don’t need to be binary or partisan.
“We are much more complex than any person that can put us in these little boxes.”
You may know of Terry as an actor, an NFL player, an artist, an activist, an advocate, a designer or even as Ping’s Chief Identity Champion. These descriptions, of course, just scratch the surface. Terry is a bona fide polymath, but his experience shows some people don’t accept that many different versions of a self can be contained in one individual. Parts of the world say to him, "If you're an athlete, you can't be a designer." Given his celebrity status, his words are often scrutinized and used as the basis for people placing him in one virtual corner or another. He calls it the sportification of the world, where you’re either on the Green Bay Packers or the Cleveland Browns but never on both teams at once.
Terry understands that this is simply not true. We are much more complex than a person who can be put into little boxes, and that’s a beautiful way to live. Terry is also a father, a husband, an American and much more. These components aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re simply a reflection of the richness of someone’s depth of being. And through owning your identity, you get to make choices about who you want to be.
Takeaway #2: Identity is wrapped up in what artists are “allowed” to do.
“The best thing I learned is that everything has a story.”
When I think about the digital identity space, I often ponder the fact that so many extraneous people create definitions of who someone is and what they should be, and going against conventional norms can cause great discomfort. Decades ago, Bob Dylan came out with an album with an electric guitar and people lost their minds. It never stopped Bob Dylan, but these days 10 million people can weigh in online about how they feel about Lizzo playing the flute, and that inevitably puts pressure on an artist. Terry has had to fight a tide of preconceived ideas, such as the notion that “real” actors don’t dally in advertising, and he is grateful that he wasn’t locked into one way of being or thinking about his own identity.
But learning on the fly taught him that everything has a story—and this is where the magic is. When Terry started endorsing Old Spice, he understood that people weren’t interacting with the brand because of information he was disclosing; they were participating because they wanted to be part of the story. It’s the same reason we go to our favorite cafe for the same cup of coffee every day: that business’s story resonates with us and reflects our own identity.
Takeaway #3: It is possible to stay authentic to yourself when being pulled in many directions.
“I have chosen that the stories that I really want to represent also have to represent me.”
One of the most fascinating parts of our conversation, for me at least, was hearing from Terry what it was like for him before he was the public icon he is today:
As a result, Terry is extremely careful these days about what he chooses to advertise. Managers and agents have pushed back at his turning down millions of dollars, but those opportunities didn’t closely mesh with Terry’s knowledge of who he is at his very center. For instance, Terry doesn’t get involved in promoting gambling or alcohol. The stories that he wants to represent also have to represent him.
Takeaway #4: Terry is passionate about helping improve lives, and his work at Ping helps him further that goal.
“As the Chief Identity Champion, I really help with the story of the brand.”
Terry and I joke that when he came on board at Ping as the Chief Identity Champion, people were under the misconception that Terry had taken my job. The difference between what we do, however, is as Terry describes it, “the difference between Silicon Valley and Hollywood.” In this analogy, one topic is presented in two different ways. In my role as Chief Customer Information Officer, I work to convey information—covering the who, what, when, where, why and how of identity—whereas Terry, our Chief Identity Champion, is focused on telling the story of our brand.
He does so because he’s passionate about improving the quality of life of citizens around the globe, wanting to empower others so that we’re not settling for some form of mediocrity that creates situations where not everybody can participate. He understands that outside of the tech world, people don’t necessarily care about all the x’s and o’s and how technology works. They just want to be able to watch a movie on their phone or know that someone isn’t stealing their identity. Terry works to make that happen through helping others champion their own identity.
And it’s exciting to me that Terry’s goal aligns perfectly with what we’re achieving at Ping Identity through technology. When we say “we champion identity,” we mean we’re elevating our mission above building and selling identity and access management products to thinking more broadly about how we can guide and redefine the way identity is understood in today’s world. And that’s especially valuable for the end user, who may not understand the ins and outs of the technology that powers their online experiences, but needs the companies they do business with to protect their identities and personal information they choose to share.
Takeaway #5: Our faults and mistakes—and thus self-reflection—are what make us human.
“When you’re talking about identity, the only thing you’re talking about is being human.”
The thread of what it means to be human was woven throughout our conversation, so it seems appropriate to wrap up this post with some of Terry’s deeper expressions about identity and humanity:
Thanks for taking the time to explore some of the deeper philosophical ideas around identity today. To listen to the full discussion and find out about other episodes, please head to the Hello User podcast page.