fate, ripped abs + the lie behind self-improvement



My friend and trainer told me a story from when he was living and dating in New York.

He was working as a male model and acting in commercials. He didn’t like telling strangers this when they asked the “what do you do?” question because he found the consequent conversation (“Have I seen you in anything?”) awkward and tedious. (“Well, I was in a New York Times commercial…I was the guy reading the sports section….”)

So when women asked him what he did, he told them, “I’m a dentist.”

“Oh,” they would say, and drop the subject.

One night he hit it off with a French ballerina passing through town. They went back to his place. They got really, really friendly. She ripped open his shirt, saw his ripped abs, and said in her thick French accent, “You’re no dentist!”

And he had to admit that he wasn’t.

I like this story partly because I like what it says about identity, how it’s written right into your body. We often say, in this culture of obsessive self-improvement, “You can be anybody you want to be” – but I don’t think that’s true.

In his book FATE AND DESTINY, Michael Meade defines ‘fate’ as the cross-section of genetics, environment and events that shapes our possibilities. We are born into a very particular set of limitations and gifts. If we accept our limitations (“I am highly disorganized”) and develop our gifts (“I am highly creative”), we can come to a strongly grounded sense of who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do in this lifetime. But it’s not a matter of becoming anybody you want to be – because you can only become more (or less) of what you already are.

It’s more a matter of, as Hugh MacLeod likes to say, remembering who you are. And a big part of that is remembering who you are not.

You’re no dentist.

Remembering is necessary because You can be anybody you want to be has a way of turning into You can be who you’re supposed to be. It’s the box that you’re supposed to fit into. You’re a girl – or a boy – so you’re supposed to be and act a certain way. You’re a member of this family or that culture so you’re supposed to behave and believe and choose your goals accordingly.

You can be anybody you want to be has a way of turning into You can be anybody that they want you to be.

And you can’t.


But when you rip open that shirt to find the ripped abs of truth – when you remember who you are – the question then becomes: Do you declare yourself?

Or do you keep yourself in hiding to avoid uncomfortable conversations?

Problem is when we role-play, we start to believe what we thought we were only pretending.

The truth of who we are slips away. We forget ourselves all over again.

Say it enough times and you might start to think that you are, in fact, a dentist. Until life finds some way to tell you otherwise.

Sep 29, 2012

17 comments · Add Yours

Interesting post. Self improvement can be a good thing..in the context of remaining true to ourselves. However, there’s something to be said about ‘default modes’, so many people default to doing nothing..watching TV..etc, but I guess in this way of thinking, you could say these are learned behaviours from the culture we live in?
The dangerous thing about this mindset, in my opinion, is that some may accidentally start believing that what they are meant to do in life is already within them and they just have to find it..this can be often a fruitless and depressing search. I see it all the time in fellow university students.
So I think that it’s important to strike a balance between ‘remembering’ who you are, and ‘cultivating’ who you are.


@Aurooba Ahmed I totally agree. I believe that remembering who you are includes knowing what you want to be and do, which lights you up and gets you off the couch. ‘Default modes’ — apathy — that’s a way of numbing out, detaching, disconnecting. Hiding.

I’m just glad that I got the chance to write “the ripped abs of truth”. That’s art, dude.


Oh, and just to add….You find out who you are through a series of actions, through small course corrections as you lean into your instincts and your strengths.. Clarity comes through engagement. A lot of people don’t quite get that: they think you have the revelations first, figure out your ‘passion’ and then you act.
That’s not the case.
Cal Newport writes really compellingly about this in his book SO GOOD THEY WON’T IGNORE YOU which every young person (and a lot of older ones) on this planet should read.


Ah the issue of identifying and categorizing oneself.

There is no larger question to an expat than this one: “Where are you from?” Despite the high mobility of humans and various populations, this question assumes that where you are born is where you live when you aren’t visiting someplace and that where you are born defines who you are. It’s the question that questioner needs an answer to, in order to categorize you so that their interaction with you becomes easier. The questioner can use a mental lookup table to form hypotheses, conclusions, ‘facts’ or prejudices, in order to know what behavior to use in order to proceed in that interaction. And then we face the stereotypes.

[one conversation with an old Italian man on the train between Frascati and Rome]

him: “Where are you from?”

me: “I was born in Hawaii.”

him: “Nice life there isn’t it? But do they have good food there? You Americans like McDonalds for your food.”

me: “I don’t remember when I ate McDonalds food last. Perhaps five years ago I ate something from McDonalds.”

him: “Then what do you eat?”

me: “I like fresh fruit and vegetables and fresh seafood.”

him: “Oh! Italians like that too.”

I am not my country, or rather, I am not my governemnt.

When I first moved outside of the US in 1998, I played around for a while with the idea of assuming different identities. I was ‘free’ to try on different personnas, perspectives, viewpoints, and it was a liberating feeling to discover that I could be whatever I wanted without the U.S. baggage. At the end of this discovery, I found that I was most comfortable with no masks, no assumed baggage, at all. I liked (and still like) this maskless way of living a great deal.

However, the question: “Where are you from?” is something from which I cannot escape. What do I answer? These days I answer ‘from everywhere’ because I don’t want to be boxed in by the other, but then that puts the other in an uncomfortable position.

No matter what each of us think and feel with regards to our identification (or not) with our government, state, city, family, etc., the person with whom we interact has their own perspective of us (or rather, me, the individual). So then a constantly recurring decision must be made: “Do I spend the time/energy to communicate individual-to-individual, with no masks and stereotypes, or do I slide by this opportunity because … ” (fill in the blank: “I am tired”, “I am in a hurry”, etc.). You see, no matter what our own perception is, communication involves (at least) two people.

Tonight as I was writing this, it occurred to me that maybe I should carry an inflatable globe of the Earth and hold it up, and say ‘I am from here’.


@Amara Graps It’s not your responsibility to educate people who annoy you. You declare yourself; you don’t expect everybody to understand or accept that; you’re not doing it for them, but for your own sense of clarity. I can say — and I do — “I’m a feminist,” and god knows what notions some stranger has about that. And you’re right: I can decide to explain that I do shave my legs, wear lip gloss and heels, and love and adore men, that feminism is actually a beautiful, inclusive, life-affirming movement that has an image problem because of how the word has been been co-opted and corrupted by its enemies, that ‘bra-burning’ is actually a kind of urban myth (it never happened). Or I can let it slide and move on. In any case, there’s only so much you can say; it’s what you do consistently over time that makes your real argument for you.
I like your globe idea. Say you’re a citizen of the world and let them draw their own conclusions. :)


Dear Justine: For expats, unless one is fluent in the language of the other, declaring onself is usually impeded by the complication of communication. And I want to communicate. I’m a stranger in their strange land and a very social being. So while I consider myself a feminist too, I would be hard-pressed to find an easy soundbite to describe what all that means. I usually have to start with the most basic idea. For example, for my work, I work in planetary science, which can be translated to astronomy, which can be translated to: looking up, pointing a finger at the sky, I study that’. Last week my daughter’s daycare teacher responded: ‘Oh, you work for NASA!’ OK, they have a good enough idea what I do, so I left it at that.

My favorite way of declaring myself is using the method of adjectives that the German language provides when they want a word to precisely describe something. They just string adjectives together to arrive at the end: a very nice precise description. I like that method so much that I’ve ended up using it for years, every once in a while adding another adjective.

So then my current declaration is this one: woman * mother * astrophysicist * student-of-the-universe * writer * atheist * gaia-ist * anarchist * bicyclist * zen-buddhist*teacher * daughter * lover-of-music * sensual-ist * foreigner * sister * loner * friend * programmer * reader * thinker * laugher * cryer * eater * sleeper * breather…


@justine aha too true! I actually saw the title and grinned because it was such an awesome expression! :D


@justine I know! I read it the day it came out. I LOOOVE Cal’s writing and that book is simply epic. I want to write a review about it but..I just can’t seem to be able to write something concise enough yet. Instead, it’s resulting in a series of posts that I’m writing that is basically blowing my own mind..never mind everyone else’s.


@Amara Graps Amara, I lived and worked in Japan for a while (and I don’t speak the language) so I hear you. I didn’t mean to sound flip and I should have taken more time with that response (and read through your comment more carefully, I was rushing it). I’ve been reading about dharma — how learning/recognizing your dharma isn’t enough, you need the ability to declare it, to own it, to focus that intention, confidence and energy. I was playing with that idea in terms of declaring and owning your identity. I keep hearing people say variations on the theme that they don’t know who they are. When it comes to conveying that identity — having that identity reflected back to you by others, being validated– and you can’t speak the language — I just wasn’t quite there yet. You’re opening up new blog posts. Not to mention, you sound amazing.


My mother had several mantras she used to sing me to sleep with. One of them was, “You can do anything, have anything, be anything, so long as you’re willing to work hard enough and sacrifice.” I remember thinking, sure, so long as I’m willing to sacrifice who and what I am. Those were the thoughts of a child who hadn’t yet been given her first Tinkerbell lipstick, so I’m guessing we’re born with a strong sense that we’re unique and do not want to give it up for anything, even if we don’t yet have a clue what or who we are.

It’s good to hear someone affirming that we can accept less-than-perfect things about ourselves and concentrate on our gifts. So much of our educational system is seeking out weakness and trying to improve it while ignoring the strengths. The end result is a mass of mediocrity. In this tiny town with a monster school system (it really is bizarre), the superintendent has just issued an order for all the schools to have fun this year. He said just have a good time and let’s see how the numbers play out. In this heartland of poverty and helplessness, my money’s on the numbers going up.


@Aurooba Ahmed Cal Newport is the bomb. I look forward to those blog posts!


@Cyd Madsen Irony is, when we’re presented with an endless array of possibilities, choices — we freeze up. The paradox of choice, and all that. We do best, creatively, when we have something to work against (and around and over and underneath and through)….When we know who we are, we’ve got something real to work with. Otherwise we’re just kind of flailing in the dark…. Let me know what happens with those numbers. :)


Hi Justine,

No problem about the response. Thank you alot for the Cal Newport book recommendation too. It looks like a good reminder for me. And even though my daughter is 3 months short of 4, I’m planting alot of seeds in her mind (and refining my own philosophy) in order to show her her potential.

And let me recommend one book I found that you might not have heard of: “Paddling my own Canoe” by by Audrey Sutherland I think that every young person should read this one as well. Some old text I wrote describing Sutherland’s book is here:



@Amara, I checked out your links, those passages are beautiful. Getting the book now.


Dear Justine: This morning I was wondering if that amazing woman: Audrey Sutherland is still alive, and I think she is, after a gogle search. At least up to April 2012, the date of the following blog post. She is 90 years old and has paddled an estimated 12,000 miles. In an inflatable kayak. Solo. She is hero to many. She has a new book out this year too: Paddling North. http://www.outrigger.com/explore/hawaiian-islands/view-from-here-blog/2012/Apr/meeting-audrey-sutherland-in-haleiwa-oahu


Great story! And absolutely true that you have to be authentic. Manipulating the truth becomes a dangerous game, sooner or later the real truth comes out and it is such hard work keeping up a ‘story’.


“fate, ripped abs + the lie behind self-improvement ” Super Title Justine !
With Your permission I would like to send it for publication in my son’s college newspaper in DC as it is very right on sorcery !
That life is no longer a linear silo of competition but loving your own personal strengths and weaknesses.. Honoring, acknowledging them to utilize for creating a whole person who excels via being authentic not a clone of a celebrity etc. It is all about ” creating” you based on your very own uniqueness and being very proud of that.

Our world is rapidly becoming global. Relationships are not standard at all much less the ” family ” culture is no longer traditional we can no longer have this top down approach to knowing or understanding the people we are engaging with. Just be in the moment without need for filters to put them in a box for instant answers.

What do U do, Where are U from, how old are U etc etc are questions to give a person a frame reference to understand You ” from their perspective ” ! Not the reality that is.

I am new to your blogs Justine but U hit the nail on head in so many areas.
I completely understand UR trainers reasoning to simplify his life !
Except when I lived in Boston in 1970’s Men putting on a suit and saying they a attorney or broker when they were construction worker was pretty much the norm… They wanted to get “Laid”. Pretending to be rich successful was a sure slam dunk for 1 night stand !

That was before ” aids” and ” google” if he did indeed give the correct name to begin with !! I studied sociology so I was observer of all this.. Finding it very interesting that Men had these needs to pretend and hide who they really are ??
I realize now it is the media influence that still persists today.
Therefore many people are disassociated gumbytizing themselves to all this confusion. This again was a super thread !
Shows the Emergence we all dealing with. We owe no explanations to any one !

Why this is a excellent message U write here the young people starting out have to see and know.. Being authentic truthful is only way in the society arriving..
or as U say “U find out who you are through a series of actions, through small course corrections as you lean into your instincts and your strengths.. Clarity comes through engagement. A lot of people don’t quite get that: they think you have the revelations first, figure out your ‘passion’ and then you act.”


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