Who Am I, First? | Chadwick Boseman

After the finding out the devastating news about the passing of Chadwick Boseman this past weekend, I came across a clip of the actor speaking on his career in the HBO show: The Shop: Uninterrupted that gave me tremendous pause for thought.

“I had agents that, would give me things that, you know, are more stereotypical — you know, roles that I should take. [And those agents would say] You have to go in for this because it’s this director, or it’s this actor. But I want to work with that actor, but I don’t want to play that role. I want to meet him when I’m doing something better than that… Because I said no at certain times, it made me available for the things that got me to where I am. For me, it’s always been, first, who are you? Who am I, first? I have to know who I am first to know how to navigate this thing. Because if I’m navigating and […] I become something that I’m not supposed to become, then I’m in the wrong place — whether I’ve made it in other people’s eyes or not.”

(Watch the clip below)

It’s clear to me that Boseman has left an incredible legacy through his work; and the strength he had, now revealed to us, as he battled his cancer whilst he performed his last roles is both inspiring and moving.

But it’s Boseman’s words, the explanation behind his powerful career that holds such gracious wisdom as he inadvertently pleads for us to ask “Who am I, first?” To think about that which is rarely thought of in a world where everyone is ‘busy’ and is simply trying to ‘get ahead’:

What do I actually want?

Whilst Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that the lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters; this could also be said of the ambitious, yet ultimately aimless individual. Not yet developing the base of confidence from which to say ‘No’; certain ‘opportunities’ may lead the young professional astray.

It’s true that if you are yet to figure out what you want from and for your life, your raw passion could easily be taken advantage of. Any individual who gets a sense of inevitability to your success, from your drive and work ethic, will see you as nothing but valuable. This, in turn, will encourage them to persuade you to make a pit stop and place your attention toward their goals before you drive off and focus again on your own. Take note of these subtle distractions such as an employer who lavishes you with a title and great salary for years on end, or, as Boseman points out, an agent who sees the short-term monetary gain from you taking a more stereotypical role, based solely on your physical appearance.

Author Robert Greene warns us of this slippery path as he states that we can find ourselves in what he calls: Tactical Hell as we “get needlessly caught up in people’s games and battles, wasting time and energy that you will never get back. You come to respect your own ideas less and less, listening to experts, conforming to conventional opinions.”

For the young professional, take the time to ask yourself the questions “Who am I, first?” and “What do I actually want?” before you continue on your journey: and remember that to reach the top of your own game: you must learn to stick to the ladders, and avoid the snakes.

The dangers of not doing so are highlighted eloquently and on numerous occasions in the show Mad Men. Many of the show’s characters measure their accomplishments against external expectations. Rarely stopping to ask if what they’re doing is for themselves or for others. But as the show progresses, each character’s refusal to ask oneself this question slowly introduces a sense of anxiety amongst the outwardly-successful ad men and women. Eventually, this internal struggle grabs a hold of the character’s professional lives.

At the peak of this feeling, the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, cries out that “I have been watching my life. It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.”

No matter how much we press on, there are sometimes moments you think: well I’m doing all the right things, and yet I don’t feel emotionally connected to those things at all. Whenever that’s the case, it's likely that what you’re actually doing: are the wrong things.

In moments like this, return again to the answer you get from Boseman’s question: “Who am I, first?” and strategically ensure that your every move lends itself to fulfilling that. Ignore such temptations as: “one day you’ll be running this place” and “if you keep at it, your bonus will be immense at the end of this year”. Focus only on what you want your life to be.

For those later in their career, this kind of advice may require you to pivot. To detach and untether yourself from the influences of your past. Taking such a hard turn from a path you’ve ventured on for years takes courage, the kind that Seneca recognised:

“Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.”

This is sometimes what is required in order to live a truly complete life. The kind of life that makes you both an inspiration and a real-life superhero.

And when I look at both the words and actions of this rare talent, it seems to me, that this is what Chadwick Boseman did.

As Yasmine Amiera beautifully pointed out in her tweet: “Chadwick Boseman was so intentional with his roles, the characters he portrayed, and the impact left as a result. every single role meant something”

Rest in Power, Chadwick Boseman.