When I graduated from Tulane University in 2017, I was like most Liberal Arts graduates in that I had no idea what I wanted to do post-college. I had many interests I wanted to pursue such as psychology, Spanish and acting. Eventually, I decided I would pack up my life, drive to Los Angeles and give the entertainment industry my best audition.
As fate would have it, my car broke down two weeks before graduation and I reasoned I couldn’t move to L.A without a car. A week later, I found myself back at my parent’s place in New York, happy for about two days before bouts of anxiety and mild depression began to set in.
It seemed to me that all my friends were interviewing and accepting finance or real estate jobs in New York, earning six-figure salaries with three weeks vacation a year. I started to believe that everyone was on the fast track to success while I would spend my life playing catch-up.
In psychology, the confirmation bias says we seek out and remember information that confirms what we already believe. Because I believed all my friends were selling their souls for money, when I saw something confirming this theory, it only strengthened my belief that everyone had their life planned but me.
Of course, this wasn’t true – no one has their life figured out at twenty-two. Shit, even at sixty-two, my dad is still making major changes in his career. We often tell ourselves stories, based on at best, half-truths that often overlook our innate ability to adapt to change.
The heart of Buddhist philosophy that I try to live by states that everything in this world is impermanent. Accepting this concept is crucial for developing happiness because the more you are resistant to change, the more likely you are to fall into the trap of thinking the world is against you.
Irish playwright, Bernard Shaw once said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself”.¹
While ~finding yourself~ sounds funny and important, it is really bullshit. As someone who has been traveling for two years, take it from me, you are not going to “find yourself” in the Amazon Jungle, on a beach in Thailand, or in a club in Ibiza.
Bernard has it right that you must create yourself through trial and error. We have to take initiative to do things that will define who we are. Self-discovery will not fall from the sky one day onto the heads of those who are patient.
“Have you found yourself yet??” is one of the most common questions I get asked from friends back home. While usually just for a laugh, there is an unavoidable notion that those who travel are looking to ~find themselves. What the fuck does that even mean?
Well, I’ve done some thinking about the “self” in daily life, on Vipassana meditation retreats and from reading books on psychology and Buddhism. What I think people mean when they talk of finding themselves is this:
“If I rid myself of all familiar comforts and land in an exotic place alone, what kind of person will I become”?
Will I be more empathetic and friendly? Or will I become selfish and introverted? Will I love every moment alone in nature? Or will I find out I hate being alone and just want to share this moment with someone?
The answer is perhaps not shockingly, a bit of everything, dependent on the situation. One of the most fascinating things that I have noticed and experienced is that there is truly no ‘you’ or ‘self’ that remains stable and fixed throughout your travels. We are products of our environment, both literally and figuratively.
Through meditation, one begins to notice you are merely an observer of your thoughts, they are not “you”. This realization allows you to further dismiss the notion of a constant unwavering self.
The master philosopher Bruce Lee suggests, “you must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Become like water my friend”.²
If you are the water in this analogy, which version is the real ‘you’? Does it even matter? Would having a “true self” be beneficial to our well-being or success? Perhaps it only confuses us more.
There is a good reason to believe that having a “true self” may not always benefit us. Professional athletes provide a prime example of the fragility of defining your life in one dimension. It is quite common for athletes when they retire to feel lost and oftentimes depressed.³ They have spent their entire life perfecting only one craft, if he/she can no longer do that, then what the fuck to do now?
While it is certainly admirable to master a craft, it is possible to do so without relying on such a rigid concept of yourself. Take a look at how you define yourself and try to soften that perception. That way when things inevitably change, you can transition with grace instead of hostility.
A good way to expand your character is to just try new hobbies — get your soul involved in an art form — be it cooking, writing, filming, singing, anything!
Having hobbies makes you more attractive to potential partners as people who do shit are simply more interesting than those who only work, come home, and watch Netflix. More than a mating call though, having multiple interests ensures your future happiness.
Most people adhere to the validity of insurance on anything that involves money — airplane tickets, cars, homes — but what about insurance on anything that involves your happiness? If you are only able to derive happiness from one source of identity or practice, then what will happen if that goes away? Should you just accept depression? Certainly not.
Thus, while some people say the best way to prepare for the future is to diversify your investment portfolio, I believe it is equally important to diversify your identity. One of the many aspects I love about living abroad is the freedom that comes with not knowing the future. The idea that everything is impermanent should allow us to be free in our thinking, to be free from constraints and expectations as we develop our lives. The true self must be created, torn down, built up and torn down again. Life is this way, it is as it should be.
5 thoughts on “How to Find Your True Self”
Nice! As someone who is teaching abroad and not selling my soul for money, I can relate to this on a lot of levels, plus the concept of the ever-changing self. This is great and the bonus is the hilarious memes
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meme game on point. dig it steve o. when is the next one x)
Many thanks, Stephen. Bruce Lee reference is money. Well-written and important, as always.
The combination of Mansonian and Buddhist philosophy is maybe one the best things abt this – and you :). Totally agree that a big problem with identity is comparative, subjective, and based solely on what you have been exposed to. Thich Nhat Hanh talks a lot about the concept of constant transformation – also using the metaphor of water to explain that life and death is just a wave, and emptiness is the ocean (read The Heart of Understanding). Additionally on emptiness (a word we typically associate negatively, but many Buddhists see as the ultimate dimension or nirvana) Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say that we are all very much empty – but empty of what? Of a seperafe self. The concept of interbeingness suggests that we are each “who we are” because someone else is “who they are” – or, “I am here, because you are there.” When we are selfless, we also accept our impermanence, which allows for constant transformation and for life to continue on. “Selflessness is the interdependent nature of all things. Without interdependence, nothing could exist” – TNH.
I do disagree that there exists no true Self, but I will agree that you cannot find the Self in external pleasures (sry Ibiza lmao). Many Buddhists and psychologists (like our boy Jung) believe that tapping into one’s True Self is the most important aspect of our life. But it’s a journey of introspection, which requires removal of material identifiers and tapping into the unconscious. Not throwing shade on external pleasures, it’s important to shake your world up every now and then. But this is merely a tool we can use to redirect our priorities towards mindfulness, selflessness, introspection, and an overall happier form of existence 🙏🏼 I love u
Mansonian haha yes you get me Mal…
Very long comment let me see if I can adequately reply.
It’s funny you bring up the emptiness – in English the connotation is indeed negative, yet a yogi was just telling me this weekend at Jai Thep about how many other cultures view empty as space for growth, without the “lacking” connotation that is present in English…interesting 🙂
There was a draft of this piece where I talked wayyy more about the biological interdependence between us and all of nature, even how we got here – glad to see you made the clear connection as well.
Perhaps there is a true (or truer than others) self, but my point is that your true self today is not the same as it will be in 2 years down the road. Though aspects remain the same, you may still have the same values, you will be unquestionably a different person if example your father dies, if you get married, etc. You will recreate your identity and this shouldn’t be something we have such an opposition to; it’s perfectly natural and commonplace for everything to change, always.
I think you probably understand that but your comment was so thoughtful I thought it deserved a real response.
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