Tuesday, November 23, 2010

who do you think you are?

We label ourselves a lot. I say the less, the better.

Labels are a way of having expectations for ourselves. "I'm the music guy," we say to ourselves. "I'm someone who dislikes carrot cake." "I'm bad at learning math." Well, what's really the point of having these phrases and labels?

Do they foster your identity -- locking you into a position you may later regret? Do they make you feel special? Do they give you an excuse for not trying, a sense of vindication when they are "proved" correct, a crutch for connecting with other people?

Let's look at each of the examples above.

"I'm the music guy."
This is a classic way to build an expectation in yourself. Maybe at one stage in life you were really good at playing or writing music, and you built part of your sense of self around this. It's great to recognize your strengths and to pursue them as you contribute to this wonderful world we're in, but it can also be a trap. What if one day you are not that good at music anymore, or you find someone much better than you? Any other aspects of yourself will probably seem pretty useless then, in your moment of dejection. Were you just a fake this whole time? Will you ever regain your place in the world?

Too bad you didn't cultivate a larger sense of self that allows for failing, for not being awesome at music! Hahaha, ok, this is a little extreme, but we all know people who get very legitimately worked up and brought down over finding themselves bereft of their "identity".

You are the only one who gets to determine how you identify yourself. Wouldn't you rather optimize this, so that you are just as happy being awesome at music as being not?

None of us are always going to be the best at any one thing.

This is not to say we should avoid pursuing greatness, hahaha, no no! We should definitely try our best, but let's play music well for the sake of playing music well, not to feel vindicated and justified for claiming ourselves to be superior to some other group of people. Hahaha, think of all those famous musicians who had the aim of playing good music, not of being the best musician.

Play music because it feels good, play music as a gift to your listeners. Don't play music so that you can breathe a sigh of relief because you are still probably "the music guy".

Hahaha, just a thought!

"I'm someone who dislikes carrot cake."
Alright, fine, the times you tried it you didn't like it as much as chocolate cake. But, well, we've all read Green Eggs and Ham, right? Give it another shot. And even if you still don't adore it, just experience what it is like to be eating it. Isn't that what you do when you eat chocolate cake, you just get really into the moment of consumption?

What is the point of disliking something (something non-harmful, at least)? What good does it do you or anyone else for you to be set in your mind that you will have a negative experience, a bad time, if you are made to eat a slice of carrot cake? All it does is make you grumpy when it happens. Why on earth make yourself grumpy??

I understand that most people have a lot of preferences. Given perfect freedom, you'd always enjoy the chocolate more than the carrot. But how do you KNOW that this is always true? And what does it gain you?

I used to not see the point of vanilla ice cream. Seriously, it's the base flavour of nearly every dessert, so it's like eating "blank" ice cream. But you know what, vanilla is an available flavour nearly everywhere. That many people can't all be wrong, right? Also, I don't want to be one of those old people who never stopped being 3 when it comes to food preferences. So now when faced with myriad ice creams, sometimes I'll get vanilla just to mix it up. Why not! I can savour it as much as the Turtle Fudge Sundae flavour, and it's my own fault if I fail to really get into it.

BONUS: if you're really good at avoiding the temptation of preferences, think how much easier life is when people decide on cake flavours for you? Or on other less-trivial things? Suddenly now you are able to just keep your peaceful, giggling mood, and not get upset or even just miffed that it's not precisely how you would have arranged things.

And maybe you'll realize that you don't even mind carrot cake so much anymore, and even sort of enjoy it.

"I'm bad at learning math."
This one might be trickier to spot, and has variations like, "I'll never be good at calculus." Well, not with that attitude! Sure, some things come more quickly than others, and it's great to recognize in what areas you'll need to put more effort.

But there's basically no point in convincing yourself that you're going to be bad at something. Like the inverse, where you pride yourself on your accomplishments, this is a way of defining your core identity that can be self-reinforcing and lead to expectations.

It's not part of the path to happiness. It won't really motivate you to try harder, it won't make you feel at ease when you go to math class, it won't set you up for breaking out of any future periods of difficulty.

Ok, it's great to be modest and humble, to express freely your weaknesses and sympathize with others who don't pick up math like a thief picking up your dropped wallet. But no need to lock yourself in to a self-defeating mindset! If you need to work a little harder, then work a little harder. That's all. Believe in yourself.

I have no way of defining myself now. Thanks.
That's kind of the goal, but not everyone will be completely comfortable with the notion.

There is no need to have a set identity. Nothing about us remains the same, over time, anyway. Emotions only last a few seconds, we change our minds all the time, our politics change as we age and experience the world, our health and finances affect our perceptions, a good exam grade or positive feedback from the boss can make a "lost cause" to seem beyond manageable.

So, if all of this is going to change anyway, why bother labelling yoursef when it will probably lead to disappointments and grumpiness? We connect to others best when we don't have cake-preferences and skillset views distracting us from really hearing and feeling what the other person is saying. Just laugh it off, and when people shake their heads and condescend with "You've changed," just shrug.

"We're always changing."


Follow-up reading: is there some part of us that doesn't change? One wise man's perspective.

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