why you don’t know who you are until you know what you can do
I came across this idea that you can know what you want by first figuring out who you want to be.
True goals, what I think of as ‘north-star goals’, have a way of changing you. You need to push yourself past your comfort zone, do the things you fear, wrestle with the Resistance, acquire new skills, reach out to new people. You grow towards becoming the kind of person who achieved that north-star goal. So achievement and transformation walk hand-in-hand.
This reminds me of my favorite snippet of wisdom I came across last year, in a book on creativity by Sir Ken Robinson. I used it in a post, and it seemed to resonate with others the way it did with me:
You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do.
And you don’t know what you can do until you encounter the material, the people, the knowledge that you need to do it; until you put in the work required. And whether or not you succeed in the traditional sense, that process of putting a dream into motion is going to force you to grow.
(Sometimes that kind of growth is forced on us when our old life breaks apart in some way – a death, a divorce, a job loss, a financial collapse, a war – and we suddenly start exploring other aspects of our personhood that we didn’t even know we had.)
So I took this idea and applied it to my writing. I’ve been working on a novel for what seems like forever: it is ambitious and complicated and involves an intricate backstory and a fair amount of research into everything from dance choreography to multiple personality disorder (actually known, now, as dissociative identity disorder) to reincarnation to atheism to male sexuality. I want it to be a compelling, fun, easy read — that is still rich and multilayered and gets under your skin and lingers with you afterward. So naturally I found ways to avoid working on it. The book challenges me, frustrates me, and sometimes makes me feel inadequate: why not just go to the movies instead?
What I’ve finally learned to do is accept my own so-called inadequacy: so what if I’m not quite sure how to write this goddamn novel? I will learn as I go along. I found a workshop with an excellent writing coach who gives me great feedback; I look to the novels that inspire me and take from them what I can. I know, now, that I will finish this book, and I think it’s going to be pretty good (if I dare say so myself). I will transform from someone who couldn’t write this book…into someone who went ahead and wrote it. And I’ll be a much better, deeper writer for it.
I understand, now, why I felt the call – that deep inner longing, that drive, you know what I mean – to do this novel. It was what I needed to write in order to become the writer (and person) that I want to be.
Here’s someone else that I want to be: not ‘just’ a writer (although I think that a very fine thing in and of itself), but a writer/creative entrepreneur. The first time I admitted this to myself, I could hear my own inner laughter. It seemed, for someone like me, an utterly ridiculous notion. But these longings, these urges, come from somewhere: they are the breadcrumbs that lead us down the path to our own identity. So I signed up for a female-entrepreneurship program that is long enough and expensive enough to force me to take the investment (and thus my own ambition, half-baked and vague as it may be) seriously, and puts me into contact with a community of impressive, entrepreneurial-minded women who will influence me in all sorts of delightful ways. The more actions I take toward realizing my ambition, the less ridiculous that ambition starts to seem.
Hugh MacLeod, in his great new book EVIL PLANS, tells a metaphor about a white pebble that is apparently found in the bible (the metaphor, I mean, not the pebble). The spirit says to the congregations: To him that conquers I will give…a white pebble, and upon the pebble a new name written which no one knows except the one receiving it.
Hugh explains (the way a monk explained it to him), that “you have three selves: the person you think you are, the person other people think you are, and the person God thinks you are. The white pebble represents the third one. And of the three, it is by far the most important.”
I choose to interpret God (or Goddess) as creative energy, creative intelligence. In the fulfillment of our own individual creativity is the manifestation of our identity, and the sense of deep peace, that one-with-the-world kind of feeling, that it brings. It is why material things alone don’t make us happy. It is not enough just to meet our physical needs, or even to go above and beyond them and wallow in shallow hedonistic luxury (fun as that is); we need to love, and we need to make something, build something, bring something into being, that is uniquely our own.
That is how we learn who and what we truly are.
We learn our third name.
And until then, no one – no parent, no teacher, no colleague or spouse or boss or peer – no inner voice that we’ve internalized, no self-limiting belief we’ve mistaken for part of our actual identity – can dictate to us what that third name is, or could be, much less make us feel ashamed about it.
Sad thing? Most people live and die without knowing that they had one.
image by Carl Durocher