Finding Yourself Won’t Make You Happy
I have spent the last seven years finding myself.
It all started with my semester abroad, which created two breaks. One voluntary, from my emotional connections, the other necessary, from my material possessions. My usual environment of friends, school, and family turned into a small room, space to think, and a blank social canvas.
Thus began my journey of self-discovery. First I weeded out some bad behaviors, then I explored new ideas. I dove headfirst into blogs, books, travel, and events. I learned random skills like Persian, SQL, and the Gangnam Style dance. Like on a scatter plot, each dot shaped the line.
The line was my life, and the more I tried, the clearer its trajectory became.
At a fairly young age of 21, this turned out to be one of the most productive things I’ve ever done. Having a purpose is important, and finding it is one of the biggest challenges most of us face in life. But I also became obsessed with it. I used to think the line was all that mattered. That, as long as I knew who I was, I could care less about the rest of the world. Now, I’m not so sure.
Finding myself has helped me in countless ways and I wish I could’ve embarked on this adventure even sooner. But, ultimately, it’s not what contributes most to my happiness.
That requires something else.
An Intuitive Promise
Years ago, Kamal Ravikant was down in the dumps. He’d built a track record as a successful entrepreneur, but then his last company failed. Too depressed to leave the house, he spent weeks in the dark, bed-ridden and barely moving.
Eventually, however, he got sick of himself. His chosen helplessness and resignation. He decided he’d get out of the hole or die climbing. On the day he did, he wrote down a vow: the promise to love himself. Without an idea of what it meant or how it felt, he built a practice around this vow.
Kamal’s life improved. First slowly, then surely, but at an ever-accelerating pace. His mind cleared. He took care of his body. He engaged with the world again. Over time, Kamal’s good thoughts, decisions, and habits compounded.
Good things started happening, some of which he couldn’t possibly have controlled or anticipated. I can only judge from afar, but today, he seems calm and happy. A thriving author and investor, but one with few wants and needs.
When now asked why he thinks his simple idea worked so well, he says he intuitively built it around the best piece of advice he ever received:
“Life is from the inside out.”
Miraculously, both science and philosophy agree.
Unraveling The Existentialist Brain
One of my favorite German words is ‘Trampelpfad.’ It describes a path in the woods that’s not quite a paved road, but well-trodden enough to make it the obvious choice. I like this word because it resembles neuroplasticity — your brain’s ability to physically change throughout your entire life. Donald Hebb summarized how you can use this to your advantage with a simple rhyme:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
For every action you perform, your brain takes a picture with vast amounts of information. Which neurons fired, what was the context, how did you think of yourself at the time? Keep choosing the same actions in similar situations and your brain will start remembering it took a similar picture before — and make another one just like it. Actions become reactions, efforts become habits.
Neuroplasticity — the trampelpfads in your brain turning into highways — is what makes habits hard to get rid of. But it’s also what allows us to change them in the first place. All you need is to create new snapshots. You might not believe the line “I’m not a smoker” the first 100 times you use it to decline a cigarette but, over time, your mind will make it so. Until your brain is rewired.
That’s exactly what Kamal did. By insisting on loving himself long enough, he literally altered his mind, updating it with a new belief. Life is from the inside out. Beyond making biological sense, this idea is right up an existentialist philosopher’s alley.
For over 5,000 years, going all the way back to Plato, essentialism dominated our view of philosophy. It suggests we’re born with an inherent purpose, an ‘essence’ we must align with. But in the 20th century, a few bold individuals, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and others, challenged this notion, asserting that:
“Existence precedes essence.”
Existentialism rejects the inherence of meaning. It says that first and foremost, you are. You exist. Discovering your essence, figuring out a purpose, all that comes second. In fact, doing so is not just your job, it’s the whole point of life.
So while both philosophies agree that “life is from the inside out,” only one leaves you with a say as to what that inside is. One is bent on finding yourself, the other allows you to invent yourself.
An essentialist Kamal would likely have concluded that, after a big failure, being an entrepreneur wasn’t who he was. And only an existentialist Kamal could have chosen to love himself in spite of not believing it at the time.
In a way, existentialism, like neuroplasticity, is the ultimate move towards gaining agency. If you believe you can create meaning from nothing, meaning is always just one thought away. That’s all fine and wonderful, but how does it contribute to your happiness? You’re right. It won’t. At least not on its own.
Life may be from the inside out. But happiness is from the outside in.
The Final, But Never-Ending Destination
Today, most people know Kamal as a founder and venture capitalist, but his first self-paced endeavor was to publish a book. A memoir of what he learned traveling the world after laying his father’s ashes to rest. Of course, no one wanted to read an unknown, unpublished author, so he kept rewriting it ten times over the course of a decade, collecting rejection letters along the way.
After his last, colossal failure as an entrepreneur, however, a friend urged him to self-publish a short account of how he’d recollected himself. Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It became an instant bestseller. Funny enough, he now had the credibility to tell his other story. Rebirth was published in 2017.
Kamal has a third book, published in between the other two. It’s called Live Your Truth. The title perfectly encapsulates not just the story of his life, but also its biggest lesson: Finding yourself is the starting point, but continuing to share your discoveries is the final if never-ending destination of a happy life.
Life is from the inside out. Before he could enjoy the externals, the accolades, relationships, financial freedom, Kamal had to rework his inner wirings. But only when he shared his self-created essence did his bet on neuroplasticity really pay off. There’s finding your truth and there’s living it. Two sides of the one coin that is your life. “Live Your Truth” is pulling from both directions.
Managing your mind, loving yourself, confidence, keeping your promises to yourself, minimizing regrets, all of these are important. But once we have them, once we find self-love, self-belief, self-compassion, we must share them with others. Turn back outside. Return to the world. Live your truth.
And you can’t do that in a vacuum.
Don’t Forget The Second Half
At some point in our lives, self-improvement catches most of us. I get it now. It’s attractive. Immediate. Change one thing, one habit, one pattern, and you might change your whole life.
But learning to live from the inside, to reassemble the infrastructure in our mind, is just the first step. Rewiring our brain is a waypoint on our larger path.
As the existentialist worldview takes over, we slowly learn to deal with the vastness of freedom we’ve been afforded. To be less trapped by religious dogma or political doctrines. But as empowering as it is to infuse your life with self-created meaning, it’s still one step shy of happiness.
Because unlike life, happiness is from the outside in.
Whatever we find inside ourselves that brings us joy, only sharing it can get that joy to multiply. Seeing our truth is not enough. We must live it. That’s a job that lasts a lifetime, but one with infinite space for new discoveries.
Change your habits, but let them serve something larger. Find a purpose, but fit it to something larger. Live your truth, but live as part of something larger.
Dive into yourself. May life flow from the inside. But do it with an open heart. Allow happiness to visit. Don’t forget the second half. Don’t forget…
…to engage with all of us.