Most of us are driven to define who we are. We’re not quite comfortable if we can’t put labels on ourselves. We want some feeling of certainty.
I’ve struggled with my sense of identity over the years and I’ve talked about it several times. Eight years ago was the first time I tried to explain what I had gone through in this regard. That article was my first attempt at explaining how I got from being a broken businessman whose company had shut down to being someone eager to create art. It was my best understanding at the time of what I had gone through.
I’ve come to understand so much more since then, though, that I now see that I was asking the wrong questions back then. From the depths of my depression after I shut my company down, I was asking myself, “What am I?” I was asking myself, “Who are you, David?”
I had been a journalist. Then I had become a businessman. Because my company had shut down — which I finally explained last year was because of my father — I felt like a failure. Just being a journalist no longer felt big enough. I felt like a failure as a businessman, so I thrashed around in depression trying to find some new definition of who I really was.
I now know my questions were wrong, so I was destined to find the wrong answers. My understanding of my own story keeps changing.
In that year after my newspaper company shut down, I spent hour after hour in the depths of depression, asking myself who am I and what I need to do now. I was still thinking — unconsciously, at least — that there is one label that describes who each person is.
I was still thinking back to the question that everybody used to ask when we were growing up: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I thought that question had one answer. I thought that successful people picked one course of action and stayed with it — doing brilliant and amazing things from a plan laid out in their minds when they were about 16 or 18.
I had had such teen-age plans. I was going to have a grand future. Bits of it were fuzzy, but I was going to become a political leader. I was going to be such an amazing leader that I would be elected president of the United States at an early age.
I flirted with being an engineer. For awhile, I wanted to invent things. Then I wanted to be a lawyer. For awhile — still in high school — I was going to go into the ministry. Then journalism was thrown into the mix.
In college, everything interested me. I was pulled to history, political science, psychology and half a dozen other things. At the time, I felt guilty for not having one narrow focus and sticking to it. I had an unspoken belief that successful people stick to one specific narrow path and had specific, narrow interests. I thought successful people had to be specialists.
I understand now that my questions along the way should’ve been very different. I should have been asking who I was for that moment — and I should have been asking myself what I needed to do at that moment.
There is no one right answer for all time.
I am a radically different person today than I was 10 years ago, but my temptation — even now — is to assume that what I am now is what I will remain. I’ve been challenging my assumptions about this lately. My experience and my understanding of the world lead me to believe that changes in who I am will actually accelerate in the future.
The idea that I’ve finally arrived — at any point in my life — is ridiculous fiction brought on by bad ideas we were taught as children.
It’s probably easy for you to look back 10 years into your past and see how much you’ve changed, but when you extend the line into the future, you are probably making the same mistake that I made. You are probably assuming that what you are now is “the real you” and that your major changes are finished.
We all know that most of the cells of our bodies are replaced over time. Cells of certain parts of us last only days, others for months, still others for years. Very few cells in our body — just brain cells, as far as I know — are with us pretty much all of our lives. We might look essentially the same from the outside, but we are constantly shedding discarded pieces of ourselves and replacing those pieces with new cells.
The changes to who we are on the inside is much the same. There are very, very few parts of us that don’t change, yet we are fooled into believing that whatever we are today is (or ought to be) who we really are.
The truth is that we are nothing but a constant series of “nows,” always a little different. What this means is that we are not bound by our past decisions or past actions or past beliefs. We have the freedom to decide who we are — for today — and then to continue adjusting our course until we’re finally happy with what we’ve become.
Understanding this, I am excited to think about the person I will be 10 years from now, because I believe every change that I’ve gone through has brought me one tiny step closer to becoming something amazing that I can only dimly perceive today.
If you had asked me when I was a young man what I would become, I would have seen almost none of what I’ve gone through and I would have seen almost done of the improvements I’ve made by this point. I look forward to seeing what the future brings to me through growth and change.
(This is also a reminder that the only life partner worth having is one who is also committed to traveling a path of growth and change together.)
Am I a journalist? Yes, I still am. I can’t help it. When I see stories around me, I often can’t stop myself from reporting them to you. It feels natural to use my old training.
Am I a businessman? Yes, I still am. Even when I work for someone else, I still think like a businessman, which is why I’ll be my company’s broker soon and then will do bigger things after that.
Am I an artist? Yes, I still am. I can’t help it. I still have to create. I still have to “make things.” I still love beauty in a way that defies explanation.
I’m a lot of things. I’m a thinker. I’m a historian. I’m an educator. I’m a writer. I’m a photographer. I’m a scientist. I’m even still a filmmaker. In all sorts of informal ways, I can’t help being all sorts of things. I don’t need to have one way to describe myself. I just have to follow what’s right for me — at the moment — and it will take me to places which I can’t currently imagine.
Everything I’ve done — and everything I am — mixes together to make me something for which there is no one specific word.
I’m just me.
And that is liberating.
I used to think I was a failure unless I could tell people exactly what I am in one word. I know better now. I’m not a failure at any of the things I’ve done, even though I’ve sometimes felt that way. I’ve just been laying a foundation for becoming something far broader than I ever conceived in the past.
I like what I am today far better than I liked myself 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30 years ago. I’m finally confident enough to know I’ll like what I am far better in another 10 years or 20 years or 30 years.
I’m more excited about my future now than I’ve ever been.