This is the incomplete story of the path we all find ourselves on regardless of the variations that exist.
Why is it incomplete? Because I’m incomplete. Because I’m still approaching checkpoints, roadblocks, detours, potholes, and traffic jams. Because I’m still learning, practicing, prototyping, and implementing.
Why would I write an incomplete story? Because cliffhangers are enticing, getting personal is inviting, and everyone’s story is incomplete. Because we’re all experiencing this story together, sharing strategies along the way, and presenting my imperfections makes for a good tale.
Wherever you find yourself, I hope my thoughts will be of some assistance to continue your trek. I hope what I feel compelled to say will resonate with your circumstance and my words can be molded into your future pursuits.
Most of all, I hope you feel compelled to share your story as well, whether with me or those around you, because we are in desperate need of true human-to-human connection. What better way to experience that than to take off your mask and show your whole self?
Who am I?
What a horrible, gut-wrenching question. What a malicious, non-consensual inquiry that makes me feel disposable because I can’t answer it. Who am I? Who are you to present such an abstract question as if it only requires a simple reply?
I used to avoid this question like the plague. For 20+ years, I focused my attention on figuring out who other people were.
I claimed the hawk as my spirit animal for its ability to take flight above us unwinged creatures and observe the lay of the land with beauty and grace. The hawk doesn’t live for the spotlight, but makes its presence known through its actions.
This was what I connected with. I wanted to build deep relationships with a select few people and live intimately in their shoes, so I could provide support whenever called upon. I was a listener by default and it lead to the exact “results” I had hoped for—I have lifelong friendships that are indestructible.
But, and this is a big “but,” there were unexpected repercussions. The more I built empathy with others, the more I lost empathy with myself. The more I became confused about who I was and the life I was living. Naturally, the end result was a nice dose of depression.
In one way [depression's] pretty damn shitty, but in another, it provides you a lens through which you can see the world from a wildly different perspective.
For 3.5 years, I went into some dark places. My emotions were intricately connected to the experiences of others and for a bunch of teenagers/young adults all wondering what’s over the horizon, there was a lot to take in.
Everyone’s pain points became my pain points. I was holding a palantír, unable to keep my hands off like Pippin from Lord of the Rings, except nobody was there to take it away from me—where were you Gandalf?
Depression is that vicious disorder that compromises your mental health in order to enhance your ability to connect with others. It allows you to explore emotions you never knew existed and sometimes wish you never discovered. In one way it’s pretty damn shitty, but in another, it provides you a lens through which you can see the world from a wildly different perspective.
That’s the cup-is-half-full perspective I’ve carried with me since. Although I still experience some dips every now and again, it only takes a good night’s sleep to reset and continue moving forward. This is largely due to my ability to answer the question we started with, who am I?
The relative clarity and focus that I’ve taken hold of by just having this answer in my tool belt has been groundbreaking. Now, I want to warn you because if you get this answer wrong, it’s not going to feel as euphoric as it should. I’ve had the wrong answer many times before digging up the right one.
The other important thing to realize is what’s right today will unlikely be what’s right tomorrow, so you must find the time for yourself to reflect, reassess, and reconnect with your soul’s desires.
Alright, so how did the right answer come into being?
Step 1: stop feeling selfish for figuring out who you are
You are doing everyone in your life a disservice if you use 100% of your mental capacity to address their concerns and live in their shoes. As much as you might like helping others, you are creating a remarkably imbalanced relationship where no one you love has any opportunity to give back what has been given to them during hard times.
No, your close friends won’t leave you because of this, but there will always be a hole in your relationship—a knowledgebase that simply can’t be tapped into because while they might want to access it, you have know idea where to let them in.
You’re Shrek and they’re Donkey. You’re an onion, they’re, well, they like cakes.
So, stop believing addressing your problems and finding your path is a selfish act. Rather, view it as a way to spread your knowledge and empathy to even wider circles. Because someone with focus and clarity in their personal life will do far greater things in affecting change in this world than someone who’s walking through a never ending fog.
Step 2: find the time and space to interview yourself
Now is the time for a heart-to-heart with you, yourself, and nobody else. Although my experience is anecdotal, there are plenty of highly successful people that have come and gone that would support the suggestion I’m about to make.
Wake up early, like before the sun even thinks about coming over the horizon early. The early morning (I’m talking 4-5am), after a solid night of sleep, is the most peaceful time you will ever get to experience while you’re alive.
Frankly, it might scare the hell out of you at first because there’s no one in need of your attention, but your fear will pass and this moment in your day will be an irreplaceable time of uninterrupted comfort.
This feeling in it of itself will make you hate your alarm a little bit less. Dare I say it, you might even welcome the wakeup call with open arms.
The other advantage the early morning plays is the creativity a fresh mind brings to the day. Let’s look at what the science says (from analysis done by the folks at Buffer):
“Bouts of creative writing might be easier to come by just after waking as this is the time of day when the prefrontal cortex is most active. A scientific study of brain circuits confirmed that this creative activity is highest during and immediately after sleep, while the analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on. The study looked at morning and evening MRI scans and observed that mornings showed more connections in the brain—a key element to the creative process.”
This is all to say, you will want to assess your morning habits and before you think about checking your social feeds, explore what your mind wants to contribute first. As they say—and by “they,” I mean Benjamin P. Hardy who writes great content (based on his studies in organizational psychology) about being your most productive self—look for output before input to start your day:
“Don't check your social media or email until after your three hours of deep work. Your morning time should be spent on output, not input.”
With that mentality, you will get to know yourself on a never before seen level of intimacy. You can go about this discovery in a couple of ways (now I’m talking about “space”). One, if home is where you think best, pull up a chair, get some pen and paper, and start plugging away—literally have an interview with yourself.
Ask a question, provide a response, see where the conversation takes you.
Two, if your residence makes you feel claustrophobic and contained (whether literally or in a more philosophical sense), put your shoes on and head outside, especially if it’s cold outside:
“When they were cold, the participants were better at recognizing metaphors, thinking of new pasta names and planning abstract gift ideas.
It's possible that warmth helps people with warm relational creativity, meaning they may feel psychologically closer to other people and more generous toward them. In contrast, cold may stimulate referential, or distant and cold processing, as people may feel more apart from others.”
Remember, you’re trying to distance yourself from humanity during this time. The abstract is the world you’re operating in right now and should be stimulated as much as possible. Cold is relative, too, so even if it’s summer, you’ll find the coolest part of the day during those early morning hours and experience the psychological benefits from it.
Wherever your place is, find it and establish it as your sanctuary for clear headed thought.
Once again, you're using this time and space to interview yourself. The great thing about this interview is you can take all the time you need to provide a response.
Sometimes it'll take days before you find the exact words that capture the core of each question, but don't let that discourage you. This is going to be hard, but a few days of difficulty will result in monumental clarity moving forward in your life.
Step 3: the interview
So, what kind of questions might you ask yourself? Here's a template you can follow to get started, but feel free to go in a different direction as long as you end your interview answering “who am I?”
- What are the most important things in your life today? Who are the most important people?
- What do you want the most important things in your life to be tomorrow? Who do you want to be the most important people?
- Where do you want to be in the next five years? (Use this as an exhaustive question of determining place, work, relationships, etc.)
- What values define who you are and want to be known as? (Even if you're not currently practicing those values)
- If someone were to speak about you when you're not around, what would you hope they would say? Do you care how others speak about you?
- When you introduce yourself to someone new, what do you say? Is it honest? What would you like to be able to say in the future?
- Who are you, today? (Even if it's not who you'd like to be tomorrow)
- When you get to the last question, it's time to be honest with yourself. Embrace your imperfections, misdirection, and ignorance (we all have certain amounts of each).
The key is to ground yourself in your current state of being, so you can start addressing the changes you'd like to make, the strengths you'd like to continue building, and the possibilities you choose to live into.
After you can confidently answer the question, "who am I," you are ready to ask yourself "what is my why?" Move on to part two of this incomplete story, and be ready to take the next step in getting that much closer to the future you desire.