We have an innate desire to discover who we are. It begins with those staring contests you’d do in the mirror as a child. You’d stand there a look at every detail of your face, the color of your eyes, and the way your hair falls — all in to answer the question “what do I look like”.
The check-in with our vanity never fades but our quest for more information about ourselves deepens as we age. Cruising through your teenage years it is easy to attribute your personal value with how you are received by your peers. From the popular jocks to the “nerdy” rejects — we sort ourselves by our place in the little societies known as high schools.
At this time we can sum ourselves up by our place in the hierarchy. I’m a “good-looking guy who plays quarterback” or “I’m the quiet nerdy girl who gets good grades and plays in the band” aren’t uncommon personal identities.
Soon enough we associate ourselves with the colleges we attend, the major we study, the jobs we work, and the teams we may root for. Our race, religion, gender, and sexuality may also come to identify us as we come of age in our early twenties.
This simplified sorting system helps us quickly identify ourselves in respect to everyone else around us. Being a graduate of one school over another can dramatically impact the friends you make and keep, the jobs you apply for, and the speed at which you begin “adulting”.
And adulting is tough, isn’t it?
There are those bills in the mail every month, the refrigerator doesn’t restock itself, and suddenly hangovers are a reality that can ruin an entire day. You can’t just call out sick or skip class because something more fun popped up, and romantic relationships suddenly require significant attention in order for them to work.
And so you grind it out.
Your twenties, especially after twenty-five, are where you embed yourself into your career field and earn some quality “career capital” (A term from Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You). You may or may not have found the person you love, adopted a pet or seven, and have raging political views that fill the wall of your Facebook when you aren’t sharing your story.
You are your job, your vote on a ballot, and the person/pets you associate with most frequently. You are the gym you attend, the sorts of workouts you do, and the food you choose to put in your body. A drinker but not a smoker, a fan of casual sex or someone against anything but the real thing — all ways of identifying yourself…
Yet, as you cruise towards thirty you suddenly find yourself exploring deeper. It isn’t enough to just be the titles of our twenties anymore, no matter how true they may still be. We want to know who we are on the inside.
Many people feel the toughest question you’ll ever answer is in fact, “Who Am I?”.
It requires opening your wounds, exploring those dark hallways you swore you’d never travel in your mind, and facing demons that you’ve ducked for far too long. Just the same, you must break apart the smiles, the successes, and memories that fill the photo board in your one-bedroom apartment. You must take yourself apart, as someone would deconstruct machinery, with the intent to discover the individual parts, the connections between the elements, and ultimately the power of the whole.
As you near thirty it becomes increasingly probable that you’ve seen some shit, done some shit, and heard some shit that bothers you. It could be painful visions of a broken home, the regret of college stupidity, or that knife in your gut that sears you every time the news reminds you that there is so much hate and ugly in the world. You’ve gained and lost friends at an alarming rate, felt moments of bliss at the top of the mountain, and felt steps away from giving up.
It’s just how things go.
And all of these bits matter when one chooses to dive down into themselves and discover the answer to the question, “Who am I”?
But any exploration must first have its focus, its target, its mission. One doesn’t go into the Pyramids of Giza hoping to find the Mona Lisa, nor do they go into space searching for sharks. You must know your goal, which you do — finding yourself — and you must have parameters for your search. You need to be able to rope off the information you encounter into categories in order to understand it and ultimately put yourself back together.
When exploring ourselves though, how do we boil all of our thoughts, experiences, actions, fears, faults, and fetishes into neat piles? We limit ourselves to the only two categories that matter in the end:
What MANY people say about us REPEATEDLY (Perception)
What WE do REGULARLY (Actions)
It can’t be any simpler than this, nor should it be more complex. We, as individuals on this spinning planet, are nothing more than our actions and how people perceive us. Let’s explore this a bit:
WHAT MANY PEOPLE SAY REPEATEDLY (PERCEPTION) -
We all have fans and we all have detractors. There are individuals that will support us no matter what and others that would pay to see our demise. That’s just a funky fact of being human.
So with that in mind we say emphatically that we must cautiously value the opinion of an individual. The sample size is just too small.
There is an obvious exception to this rule, however, and it is those people who spend large amounts of time beside you such as a spouse, parent, or best friend. They see a greater chunk of your entire personality over a greater period of time, thus providing a dab of credibility to their perception of you.
All in all though, the individual holds little weight. A group of individuals, however, might just be on to something. If all of your friends say that you drink too much, then it is possible that you just might. If all of your co-workers look at you as a leader on staff, then you might just be that person.
In my own life I’ve experienced this repeatedly. When I was a bit younger and boisterous it wasn’t uncommon to hear that I was “loud and obnoxious” on the training floor. These claims were often followed with “arrogant but smart” and “funny but desperate for attention”.
And they weren’t wrong.
As an only child who fought my tail off to leave a small country town to graduate the University of Maryland and become a personal trainer in Washington D.C. I was desperate for attention and accommodation. Looking back, I truly was everything that they said I was.
Now though, I’ve quieted my mouth a bit and talk much less about myself and my dealings. I’ve become a Master Instructor and mentor for the brand, which has led me to guiding the careers of other trainers both on and off the clock. I genuinely check in with the ones I care about because I genuinely care about them as people.
And so I frequently hear that “I’m a leader, mentor, and friend” to my fellow trainers. Because I’m not shouting from the roof tops about my education I also hear about my intelligence, training acumen, and coaching ability. Hell, people actually think I’m funnier now because I don’t try so hard to make people laugh.
That’s just my personal example, but the message is there in plain sight. Often times the crowd will be able to point you in the direction of your own truth. Sure, they aren’t always right and history is full of people who defied conventional logic and did incredible things, but we shouldn’t confuse ourselves with these people just because we want to feel better about our disposition.
- If no one reaches out to you on a Friday night about going out and grabbing a drink, and your calendar is bare of birthday parties, weddings, and social events, then maybe you aren’t the type of person that people want to be around.
- If no one ever confides in you or shares their dreams and visions with you, then maybe you aren’t emotionally available. If you are never in the know of a secret, then maybe you can’t be trusted.
- If your social life is booming and everyone wants to be your friend, then it may seem like everything in your life is right. But it is also possible that people may want access to your network, your net worth, or your time.
The crowd can direct your eyes towards the things you may not realize your putting off because you are immune from the emotional impact your words and actions have on others. You say and do them, but you probably don’t feel them, and that is perfectly normal. Thus, utilizing a crowd-sourcing approach might just illuminate who you really are when you are around others.
Valuable information no doubt, and even more critical when placed next to our next criteria…
YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO REPEATEDLY (ACTIONS) -
Now, it is only fair to admit that the previous category has the potential to unreliable due to bias, jealousy, and the habit of the crowd “to stick together”. This sorting hat, however, is your truest marker of “Who am I?”
The things you do on a daily basis are a reflection of your beliefs and ethics. If you believe in peace and love, then you won’t spend much time watching violent movies or vote for a politician who is heavily embedded in the war machine. So, with this in mind there is no argument for “I am what I believe in” because your actions will represent your beliefs, or at least they should.
What you are willing to do when people are watching and when they are not is what really defines you.
The early morning alarm clock and the zombie-esque trudge to the gym means that you really value your health, or at the very least, looking good naked. Late nights spent voluntarily reading and researching proves you value education and an informed opinion. Spending your time with other people all the time indicates how comfortable you are alone, and so on.
Every single day that passes will provide you thousands of opportunities to act. Do you snooze your alarm or wake up early and eat a nice breakfast? Will you snap on Karen for doing Karen things, or will you forgive her and go about your day?
Each of your actions, especially when done repeatedly prove who you are to yourself. If you consistently work hard without thought of quitting or failing, then you are a grinder, a hard-worker, and a maximum effort type of human. If you take the time to prepare your meals, grocery shop regularly, and avoid senseless treats around the office, then you are health conscious.
You get the point by now I hope. What you do is who you are, especially when boiled down over time.
So here you are deep in thought about how people talk about you and the actions you do repeatedly. You are considering how you’re perceived and what you regularly do with the intent of discovering who you are underneath it all.
This sort of inward dive can be downright scary, so don’t be afraid to involve a professional and your trusted friends when necessary. As you uncover wounds you’ll filter them through the categories — Do people perceive me a particular way because I’m covering up these scars? Do I do (x) everyday because I can’t let go of this grudge?
You’ll look at your successes and slide them under the same microscope. Did I excel at this because I work hard at my craft everyday and this time I was rewarded? Was I team captain of my sports teams because people knew I was a good player and a leader?
And as you take a part the pieces you’ll eventually discover:
You’ve spent much of your life doing things in an effort to undo pains you’ve felt and recreate the successes. And that the people around you see the product of those efforts; for better or for worse.
Which is why in the end — all you are is what you regularly do and how people perceive you. The answer to your question “Who am I” is now right there in front of you. The great news though, is that you never have to accept it for what it is and move on. It’s quite the opposite — upon realizing who you really are you’ll find yourself conscious of your flaws and cognizant of your strengths, thus launching an awareness of yourself at all times.
It is this awareness that allows you to truly define who you are. It’s knowing where you lack and where you excel that helps you find the answers to the incredibly challenging logic puzzle that is life. It isn’t the school you went to, the persons you choose to have sex with, or whether or not you like your whiskey neat or on the rocks…
It’s your actions and how the crowd perceives them. Nothing more and nothing less.