Permissionless Identities

Hi, Tom here. Little Futures is an experiment in arm’s length futures thinking. This is season 2. Last week: Public Futures. This week: Permissionless Identities.


Labels matter. They help shape our sense of identity - useful to ourselves to tell our story and useful to others to categorize and filter us.

But the ways that identities are generated, shaped, validated and sustained is changing.

People used to think they needed permission - so they would ask for somebody else to give them permission to advance, to be something different - a new job title, a new degree, a new certification, a new membership.

The old world was full of gatekeepers to impress.

The networked age is rewriting the rules and radically reshaping who gets to give permission and which parts require permission at all - and networked individuals are rewriting the rules of jobs, careers and identity to be increasingly iterative, modular and permissionless.

Working Your Identity

Herminia Ibarra, in her book Working Identity, explores career change through the lens of iterative and multiplicative identities - we have multiple possible selves and we uncover opportunities through experimentation.

Herminia outlines 9 unconventional strategies for reinventing your career in the book, but I want to highlight three that help you “figure out what you want to do with your life”:

Act your way into a new way of thinking and being.Focus your attention on which of your many possible selves you want to test and learn more about.Find people who are what you want to be and who can provide support for the transition. But don't expect to find them in your same old social circles.

Good advice. But what struck me reading this book was how networked writing (aka writing a blog, starting a substack or twitter threads) instills this mindset and enables these activities.

The internet enables anyone to explore these ideas in a zero cost permissionless environment - it’s a perfect zero-cost vehicle for experimenting with identity, trying out new ideas and making new connections. All without permission.

Specifically - networked writing enables:

  1. The pursuit of new ideas - simply through writing about them. Matt Webb has been on a tear this year with each post exploring new ideas that he’s interested in. Wide ranging and varied, it demonstrates the power to explore new territory.
  2. Many possible selves - blogs are great vehicles for experimenting with new ideas. I recently posted about books and a proposal for a decentralized version of goodreads and now have many book-related startups, investors and conversations off the back of it.
  3. New connections & networks - each post is able to attract it’s own audience and networked writing enables new connections with each post. More on that idea in my post small b blogging.

So if you’re looking for career change or career clarity I’d strongly encourage you to engage in some networked writing aka…. blogging.

Modular Jobs

But career change isn’t just about changing from one job to the next - our careers are changing under our feet. The old model of monolithic jobs with defined roles and responsibilities has been replaced with modular jobs that are constantly evolving and changing.

Vaughn Tan in his book The Uncertainty Mindset outlines how innovation teams in high end cuisine use modular job roles and regular “microtests” to continually probe and explore which skills are needed and more easily shed skills, roles and responsibilities that are no longer needed:

I realized that this was an unanticipated effect of a work environment where tests were small and trivial, and jobs were treated as a collection of many responsibilities and abilities. [...] Due to the low stakes involved in most tests few people seemed to resist dropping responsibilities that the tests suggested they weren't very good at. This continual stream of tests affected not only individual member roles but also the structure of the team itself. Each team through its members, was able to add and drop responsibilities or reallocate them within the team. These daily tests changed the team's structure - each one, big and small, modifying the shared mental map of who did what.

I’d go further and say that the model of monolithic jobs with defined static roles is a “top down” view of jobs where organizations permissioned job roles. This is gradually being replaced with a “bottoms up” view of job descriptions which is a permissionless world of employees and teams writing (and rewriting) their own roles.

But Vaughn’s point is key - modular job roles only work where there is a continual forcing function (“microtests” in Vaughn’s language) to discover, enable and reinforce adding and dropping responsibilities and skills.

Narrative Institutions

This world of permissionless identities flips responsibility for your career, your job description and your identity - it’s shifted from external gatekeepers to the individual themselves.

Taking control of your own identity can be disorienting and unsettling, it undermines our sense of a concrete stable identity as we iterate through and experiment with new identities. Managing your own identity is tough psychological work.

However in this world of permissionless identity we can (and must!) manufacture stability - especially as we move through transition times. This is especially important for freelancers, indie consultants and free agents who are completely untethered from the old world of gatekeepers and permission.

One way to create narrative stability is through creating “narrative institutions” - these are projects, websites, businesses, side projects, hobbies or activities that you can lean on for stability. While formal things like career, job description or professional label are in flux we can rely on our narrative institution to provide stability.

Crucially this doesn’t have to be a business or even a revenue generating activity - it can be orthogonal to “work” so long as it provides you air-cover and the ability to answer the question “what are you doing with your life right now?”.

When I quit my job at Google in 2014 I used the narrative institution of Fiercely Curious - I had narrative air-cover of “building an art collective” to provide some stability while I figured out the indie consultant lifestyle and felt comfortable relying on that for my identity.

This 3-min clip from a recent podcast outlines the idea:


Creating a narrative institution is zero-cost (it can be as simple as a substack or a domain name) but requires careful naming and maintenance. Naming is powerful as it defines the power of the narrative institution and what situations you can rely on it. Maintenance is important because it needs to be alive for you to rely on it - remember you’re not just projecting externally a stable identity - you’re using it introspectively.

In times of great upheaval - where your career is uncertain, ill defined and changing it can be deeply powerful to have a narrative institution to rely on.

In summary…

For both full timers and independents, career growth in a permissionless world is increasingly going to be a modular and iterative process vs the step-change enabled by the old world of gatekeepers.

So don’t wait for permission. If you’re unsure about the future of your career - don’t look for answers, don’t look for validation or labels - look for experiments, new networks and narrative air-cover. And remember that this networked permissionless world has enabled the opportunity to simply write your way into a new way of thinking and being

Big futures are permissioned. Little futures are permissionless.

This week’s links: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Writing is networking for introverts

Sari Azout writes a great newsletter called Check Your Pulse and she recently posted a wonderful little tap essay around the power of writing to shape your own identity and open opportunities:

I don’t want to build a career as a writer. I want the writing to unlock career opportunities and to be a source of fulfillment, not stress

Present tense identities

Brian (did you know he has a blog has a /now page and he nicely summarizes why a now page is interesting and distinct from an about page:

The idea is that regardless of who you are (the ‘about’ page), who you are now is different, and full of present concerns.About pages are histories. Now pages are presentlies.Present concerns offer a frame of intention, and can be more useful for others who may want to reach out.For yourself, articulating your now creates an angle of approach towards an otherwise unmarked future.

Who are you without the doing?

This deep cut podcast from Jocelyn K Glei left a truly meaningful impression on me and cuts to the heart of the permissionless world - if external motivators matter less and we’re investigating the inner life, what happens when we embrace ourselves? Who are you without the doing?:

You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature, and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior. As long as you feel the discipline comes from the outside, there is still a feeling that something is lacking in you.

Re-imagining the PhD label

Nadia Eghbal wrote a wonderful piece on her journey to re-imagine the PhD and pursue a self guided path that mirrors a PhD without the gatekeepers - the permissionless PhD:

I’ve spent the past 4+ years looking at how open source software is produced, from an economic and anthropological lens. The last thing I’ve been working on is a book, and now that the manuscript is nearly done, I’ve decided it’s time for something new.A few friends have commented that writing a book seemed, for me, like the equivalent of writing a dissertation. Reflecting on the past few years, I realized that I’d (somewhat unintentionally) made my own version of a PhD program.

Labels for indies

I wrote up my own struggle and journey in using the label “consultant” to describe my independent career in my piece I, consultant:

As you journey through the independent adventure you’ll have to invent your own labels. Maybe many labels! As you try them out you’ll likely wrestle with them and lose sleep over them (I know I did!).Again - labels have the dual property of being external and internal. They’re external in the sense that you’ll use them on your website, your twitter bio and in conversation. But from my own experience this external nature of labels takes a backseat to the inner hand-wringing and discomfort that comes with trying to describe who you are and what you do.

Disruption is… disruptive

Nicolas Colin (who has a great newsletter) talks about the entrepreneurial age and how it reshapes society. We should remember that the transition to an era of permissionless identities is going to be is going to disruptive and bumpy and not always pleasant - it’s going to upend our very notions of jobs, careers, labor unions and more. In the future of work is about hunting, not settling.

As a society, we’re still a long way from acknowledging that workers need to be hunters rather than settlers. Those who embrace the new labor market are often deemed outliers, and a lot of energy is spent on trying to get them back on the ‘right’ path. We want gig economy workers (hunters) reclassified as employees (settlers). […]The shift to the Entrepreneurial Age calls for reinventing many things. Most institutions inherited from the past, including labor law, the safety net and trade unions, were designed for settlers rather than hunters.
Today's art: False Mirror by René Magritte. “Is the sky a reflection of what the eye is seeing? Is the eye in fact an opening into another reality? Are we looking at an inner vision, or something else entirely? One thing is certain: Magritte's The False Mirror is an invitation to look at the world differently.”

Before the Big Future, endless little futures.