Three years ago today I was walking around a lake in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate NY, listening to a book that changed my life. That book was Thrive, and it was the first step of a set of resolutions that led me to taking control of my life. I learned one very important lesson, that I’d like to share with you.
I had just left an intense relationship that fell apart over long-distance, was trying to survive a job I hated, and was struggling with internal guilt and shame. I hated myself, felt lost and stuck, and I didn’t know what to do. I had walked into 2016 with a goal that most people are familiar with. I wanted to figure out “Who I Was.”
During the next few months I became more self-aware, and started to watch my actions and thoughts and really tried to observe myself. I would measure my activities, my responses, my thoughts, under the name of figuring out who I was. This was sometimes a struggle, as I could define myself one day based on being in a certain mood, and find that shifting the next. I said things like “I’m not very good at small talk,” or “I’m comfortable in a crowd.” These things became the emphasis of a more and more rigid sense of identity.
But, the curious thing was that the more successful I got at doing this, the more unhappy with myself I became. I started to find myself even more stuck in place, because “I am a strong athlete,” but “I’m not very good at dating,” type observations continually pigeon-holed me into being further wedged into exactly who I was when I started.
I was getting more observant and self-aware, but I wasn’t going anywhere. I was just more aware of where I was.
Over the course of the next three years, with the help of a dose of Buddhism and a dose of Tim Ferris, I came to an important realization. That realization, is that seeking “who you are” is just volunteering to build your own prison. Rather than opening up new opportunities and possibilities, you’re looking for ways to narrow the scope of what you can do into what you believe you can right now.
We forget that most of us “know” who we are already. Every time we say the words “I am,” “I’m not”, “I can”, “I can’t” we are boxing ourselves in to a sense of identity and ego that limits our actions. By seeking to find out “who you are”, at least in the way I did, I was actively putting up the walls in the prison I’d already made for myself.
So, I stopped trying to find “who I was” and started defining “who I wanted to be.” Rather than locking myself in a prison, I freed myself to choose my values, my actions, and the person I want to be. Instead of watching my actions, I watched my thoughts and challenged them. Instead of saying “I can’t”, I asked myself if I wanted to be, and took steps to allow myself to get there. I opened up my view so that no part of me was fixed. Instead of defining the person I wasn’t happy with, I defined who I would be happy with and strove towards it.
I took an honest look at myself, and saw some parts I didn’t like and some parts I did. But rather than just admitting my faults, I changed my approach to things I’d like to change. I sat down one day, and wrote down the person who I wanted to be. Every day, I asked myself one single question;
“How am I living up to the person I want to be?” Some days I rocked, some days I felt like hell. But day after day, I made the changes that brought me closer.
I challenged my insecurities, fought my arrogance, battled with my ego, and held myself to a higher standard.By acknowledging that it was okay to be a work in progress, and that no part of myself was fixed, I freed myself to Thrive. This simple mindset change allowed me to pare away habits, actions, people, thoughts that kept me from being the person I wanted to be. Each day I got a chance to be better, to do better, without the fetters of “who I was”, and that made all the difference.
Fast forward to today, and I live in a Buddhist Community Living Center in Boulder, work a job that I love, have the people in my life who I care for, do the things I love to do, and greet each day with a smile. However, I won’t tell you how I got here, because that may not be your path. You path is to look outside of yourself, free yourself from “who you are” and decide “who you want to be.” Not who you think you should be, or what society tells you to be, but to discover the person that you want to be. I promise you can do it, and I promise it will be worth it.