For my fiftieth birthday celebration, we booked a hotel room in Flushing, New York, so we could eat around the town all day and night. Manhattan’s food scene has gotten too mature for my taste, lacking in creativity due mainly to the ever-rising rent. Flushing, in contrast, feels refreshingly young without the pretense of Williamsburg or Bushwick. I invited a few friends for each meal instead of having one big party because I no longer enjoy socializing among large groups of people. At fifty, friendship for me is about quality, not quantity.
At dinner, I was talking to one of my friends about how some people changed in unexpected ways. That conversation lingered in my head afterward. I thought, perhaps, they didn’t change. Perhaps they have always been the same but their true nature simply wasn’t visible to us, and maybe even to themselves. What ultimately defines who we are, now I see, is our drive, and fifty years is long enough to determine what truly drives us in life, and what does not. Other more superficial or egotistical drives eventually fade (or give up) before reaching fifty.
My father-in-law had a life-long career as a scenic artist for film production. For those who are not familiar with the industry, it might sound like a glamorous job, but it’s not; it’s hard physical labor. Yet in his spare time, he still paints for himself. I think something in him compels him to paint.
In contrast, many people who once considered themselves “artists” stopped painting as soon as they confronted the reality that they are never going to succeed as artists. It turns out that they had no real drive to paint; something else about being “artists” was driving them.
I’ve heard some stories about people who thought they wanted to be billionaires but once they became millionaires, their drive to make more money deflated. It takes an exceptional level of drive in order to keep going like Warren Buffet does, especially since the world of money is highly competitive.
If you are struggling to survive, you might become obsessed with making money, and others may perceive you as financially ambitious, but once you start making a comfortable amount of money, you might feel differently. At that point, your friends might think you have changed, but at the core, you haven’t. Different circumstances bring out different aspects of you. I think each of us was born with a unique hierarchy of needs, but we can’t see it until we climb on it. What is at the top of this hierarchy persists through the ups and downs of our lives.
Throughout my childhood, until late twenties, I had never thought of myself as a writer. The idea did not even occur to me. The idea of pursuing something I’m not particularly good at made no sense, especially because I care a lot about technical mastery and I had no mastery of English or Japanese. To make things more confusing, I showed a high level of technical competence in visual arts at a very young age. All this masked the fact that my primary drive in life is writing. Among many things I’ve done in my life, writing has been the most consistent and the loudest drive inside of me, compelling me to keep typing away at my computer despite the objection of my own ego. I’m a writer not because I’m good at it but simply because I can’t stop writing.
If you stay being honest with yourself, sooner or later, you will find who you are, what truly drives you in life. Some people see it early in their lives while others take a lot longer because of various confusing and misleading factors like mine.
It would certainly be ideal if your drive can align with your career, and you certainly should try your best, but you ultimately have no control over the market demand or your own inner drive. The best you can do, I realize after living for fifty years, is to be as honest as you can be with yourself.
Ironically, you are your biggest obstacle in staying honest. The idea of yourself needs to step aside so that you can be who you are. Through fear, greed, vanity, arrogance, etc., your ego constantly denies who you are. “I know myself the best!” is often inaccurate; it’s easier for others to see who you are because they have nothing to lose by seeing you honestly.
In fact, the label “writer” might still be a way for my ego to distort who I am. What I’m truly compelled to do is to criticize. I’m a natural “critic,” which doesn’t sound so good, but more accurate. I’m certainly not driven to write fictional novels or poems. Nobody likes a critic. It’s a rather lonely, unpopular path, but this is what it takes to be honest with myself.
At fifty, I no longer have the urge to prove myself. I feel like that phase is safely behind me. The only sense of duty I feel is to stay true to myself. It’s as if I used to worry about what God will think of me on Judgement Day. Now, I feel like I finally figured out what God wanted me to do from the day I was born (to criticize!). I just need to execute his plan. God, Nature, evolution, or whatever you want to call it, wanted critics in this world. Whatever happens as a result of me being honest with myself is not my problem. That is how I feel at age fifty.