Everything as processes

9 May 2021
9 May 2021
New York City
5 mins

Last fall, I wrote on the topic of identities, and how they change:

We are constantly becoming ourselves. With every memory or book or accident or victory the person that I am changes slightly, so that the next thing I experience, I experience as a different person. Like the needle on an irritable, confused compass, identity wobbles around, only appearing static and definite when we don’t pay attention.

I think this state of becoming is an interesting way to think about identity, about who we are. If we are all living through a process of constantly becoming something else, becoming ourselves, how can we even talk about our identities? When you ask me who I am, am I the person that I am this morning, or the person that I’ve become as a result of meeting you today?

…when I speak of my identity, it’s not a snapshot of myself from one particularly special morning. My identity is the process of becoming myself. Who I am includes the question, what things about me are changing? I think identity is becoming, and when we try to understand identity as something fixed, we miss all the things that are changing.

I’ve sat with this idea of identity as a process for a while now, and I think this core idea applies to many more things than just our identities.

For almost everything we experience in this world, it’s more constructive and helpful to understand things not as things that happen in space, but a process that stretches across space and time. Things constantly change, and the process of their changing is a part of what they are.

Most importantly, life is a process of finding and forming a constantly-changing identity for ourselves. It’s tempting to conceptualize the trajectory of life as something deterministic, where you begin with a goal and follow through on its execution until the end. But one of the hard things I’ve learned this year about making big, long-term decisions is that in the long term, almost everything about me can change. I can change my values, my priorities, my wishes. It’s naive to try to make a decision for a future person that doesn’t exist yet. I am not static. I am a process, and the version of me now is merely a static snapshot of my identity, the fullness of which is much broader, and is unfolding over time.

A company is a collection of processes. Jess Martin calls these processes “work streams”. I call them workflows. Some workflows are directly related to making money, like the “sales pipeline”, where a potential customer becomes a qualified lead, which becomes a sale, which becomes a returning customer. There is also the “engineering process” whereby inputs of problems and ideas are turned into outputs of potential solutions. A company’s essence isn’t really what it owns or who it has – the soul of a company is in the bundle of processes that keep it alive.

I also like to think about writing as a process. There is obviously the process of writing, where I take ideas in my head and commit some imperfect reflection of them onto paper. But there are lots of processes tied to a piece of writing that unfolds over time and stretches beyond the act of putting ink to paper. In the days leading up to me writing this piece, I thought about the idea I’m trying to share here, and in doing so, it set off other interesting ideas in my head. After I publish this post, as you, the reader, read these words, it will hopefully set off ideas in your mind as well. These are all processes connected to writing. The lifetime of this piece of writing, if you will, is longer than itself.

Relationships are processes, too. When relationships first bloom, and then wane, and thicken and thin, and change through the trials of time, all of that process is the relationship. It’s not that the relationship is changing over time; the process of changing over time together with someone else is the relationship. Often, the footprints of a relationship stretch out beyond the time you spend with someone. Why don’t we also call these traces and feelings a part of the relationship? I think we should.

I like this way of looking at the world because it’s a way of seeing the four-dimensionality of reality. It’s as if I see a building, and rather than seeing just a brick-and-mortar monolith sticking up into the sky, I also see its existing through time – tenants moving in and out, paint being chipped off and re-applied, signs being put up and torn down. And in imagining those events unfolding, I like to think, it’s not that the building is changing over time; the process of this pile of bricks changing over time is what we call “a building”.

We don’t notice the way time colors everything in life because it flows through everyone and everything so uniformly, but I think understanding things as their changing existence over time, rather than some fixed snapshot, is a better way to see many things in the world.

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