2019 was a year of getting a peek into the minds of three strong willed women — Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and Tara Westover. Their autobiographies chronicle their distinct life situations and similar life lessons. All three stories inspired me to discover myself. At the same time, they conflicted with my prior beliefs. Having grown up in an eastern collectivist society, the notion of self discovery felt like selfishness. Eventually, I realised self discovery can rather help find the balance between selfishness and selflessness.

Finding self in the chaotic world

At 27, Michelle gave up her “successful” career as a corporate lawyer to pursue public service.This would be the first of the many swerves she would do in her life. She began her journey of self discovery after being inspired by free spirited people such as Barack Obama. Though both had ended up working at the same law firm, the life choices which got them there were totally opposite. She was there because of sequentially ticking the boxes of the “success” checklist as defined by the society — good grades, top school like Harvard, well paying job of a lawyer. He was there after swerving all his life trying to find himself and his passions. Courtesy of her socio-economic conditions, Michelle wasn’t even aware of this luxury of life. Once she started discovering herself, she realised that it is a non ending process; she will always be “becoming” Michelle.

At 18, Tara went to school for the first time in her life, against the wishes of her family. That’s when her journey of self discovery began. Until then, oblivious to her, her life was narrated by her family. The conservative family from Idaho didn’t believe in education or modern medicine. They forced their beliefs on her, depriving her of a chance to seek her own beliefs. Education liberated her. It exposed her to the external world, making her aware of the choice she has to make up her own mind. She also realised that even in situations where she is uncertain and cannot make up her mind, she shouldn’t yield in to others’ beliefs only because they seem more certain.

At 15, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban. She had stood up for females’ right to education in a South Asian patriarchal society. Unlike Michelle and Tara, Malala started developing her own identity and views since a very early age. A firm believer in the power of a book and a pen, she started advocating through blogs and speeches. Her life changed after being shot. Displaced from her own home, she now had to make a new foreign place her home. Her life is constantly threatened and is under vigilance. Though the world around her changed, she didn’t. As she perseveres to advocate for her beliefs, she also inspires several others to speak up.

These 3 stories inspired me to start discovering myself. At the same time, they conflicted with my prior beliefs. Having grown up in a culture where society precedes self, I misconstrued self discovery as selfishness. The distinction between them became more clear after coming across this tweet by Naval Ravikant — “Think for yourself, not of yourself. Think of others, not for others”. There is a difference between thinking “for” and thinking “of”. Self discovery is thinking for oneself , making up one’s own mind. Selfishness is thinking just of oneself all the time without ever considering others. On the other hand, selflessness is considering others first, at times at the cost of ourselves. Selfishness or selflessness, in extreme measures, are equally bad. How does one find balance?

I have realised that self discovery can help find the balance between selflessness and selfishness. As I started learning more about myself, I became aware of the uniqueness of my perspectives, likes, and dislikes. The same process made me aware of the uniqueness of others’ perspectives and their way of living. This awareness helps me respect others’ perspectives even when I don’t necessarily agree with them. Only when I can truly respect mine and others’ beliefs, I can find a way to balance self with society.

I highly recommend reading these three courageous stories and finding for yourself what self discovery can do for you :). Maybe our stories of discovering ourselves wouldn’t be as awe-inspiring as these three heroes, but that doesn’t make ours any less meaningful, does it?

Searches for wisdom and wit. Researches human behavior. User Researcher @VMware