In my 56 years of life, I had never asked this question. I had assumed it was my responsibility to figure it out. After all, if I don’t, who will?
In his later years, David Bowie said: “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” He implies that there is another person or more than one. Perhaps one of them is the person you always wanted to be. We usually model it after people we admire. But, here, we immediately face a problem. To want something, we have to know what it is, like “fashion designer,” “pilot,” “writer,” “stockbroker,” “doctor,” etc. But more likely than not, the person you wanted to be didn’t exist when you were young. David Bowie couldn’t have said, “I want to be like David Bowie” when he was young.
Each one of us is unique. If we succeeded in expressing our uniqueness, there would have been no model for it when we were younger, especially in today’s fast-evolving world. “Data scientist,” “life coach,” “motion graphic designer,” “podcaster,” and “influencer” didn’t exist when I was in college. In other words, it was impossible to “want” them. If we cannot know our goals, how can we be responsible for them?
Recently, I wondered: What if society knows? That is, what if human beings as a species have a built-in mechanism to figure out what each of us should be doing with our lives? If this were true, our duty would be to listen to what people want from us instead of pursuing what we want to be. Here, I want you to be careful how you interpret “what people want from us”—I do not mean societal expectations like your parents wanting you to get married and have kids. In fact, for this purpose, you should not listen to people with vested interests in your future, as their opinions would be too biased.
You probably know someone pursuing a career everyone knows is the wrong choice for him, like someone trying to become a computer programmer when everyone thinks he would be a great salesperson, an argumentative person who would make a good lawyer but pursuing to be a rock singer, or a graphic designer who should have been a fine artist but didn’t have the courage to.
In most cases, we do not have the heart to tell them what they should do. Also, we could be wrong in our assessment, and they might be right; we wouldn’t want to derail them. So, we cannot count on others to tell us explicitly what we should pursue. We have to read between the lines. We have to be good listeners.
How do we become good listeners? Looking back on my life, I can see I was a bad listener. It’s actually quite simple; we just have to put our wants, or our egos, aside. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done, especially when we are young.
The reason I was a bad listener isn’t only that I had a big ego; I felt it was my duty to become what I wanted. I thought I would be irresponsible and ungrateful if I didn’t. In my mind, I was doing it for someone else, be they my parents, God, or humanity. I felt I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and do my best to achieve it. I’m not alone in assuming this. New York, especially, is full of people who assume the same.
The desire to be somebody, or to achieve something meaningful to society, is not superficial. I believe this drive is in our genes. It’s just that our “want” isn’t particularly helpful in achieving it. Some people are driven to be somebody, not because they want to but because they feel profoundly unhappy if they don’t. It’s almost like a curse. Many people have no such drive and are still generally content. In a way, they are lucky. My mistake was assuming that, to be valuable to society, I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t consider the possibility of listening to what people were telling me.
Pursuing what you want to be is not only misguided but also impossible. It creates so much noise in your head that you can’t hear what people tell you. “The person you always should have been” is often not glamorous. Not everyone is meant to be a rockstar. Some are meant to be auditors, assistants, critics, and dentists. After all, the world could not function if everyone was a rockstar. If we listen to our egos, we naturally gravitate toward glamorous careers. There are opposite cases too, where we should have pursued more glamorous careers but were too afraid. This is a distortion of our egos, too, unrealistically low self-esteem.
Once you decide you want to be a writer, anyone who doesn’t support that goal becomes an obstacle or even an enemy. Other writers become threats. Writers around your age more accomplished than you are makes you feel like a loser, so you become hostile to them and eventually alienate the people who could help you succeed. You try so hard to prove yourself as a writer that you begin fearing people unsupportive of that self-image, eventually leading to constant self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It persists no matter how much you achieve because the goalpost always keeps moving. You feel guilty for your lack of achievement because nobody but yourself is responsible.
But what if you are not? What if your duty is simply to listen to what people want from you as a clue to knowing the person you should be? Since you have no specific goal, nobody is an obstacle. In fact, people who hate you are more likely to tell you the truth about yourself since they have nothing to lose. Everyone is a potential supporter. Other writers are no longer threats since you don’t even know if you are meant to be a writer. You don’t suffer from imposter syndrome because you are not trying to be anyone. And, you don’t have to feel guilty for lack of achievement because it’s not your responsibility. Even if you become homeless in your old age, you wouldn’t have to blame yourself. You dedicated your life to helping and listening to others; it wouldn’t be your fault but society’s.
But when you carefully listen to what people want from you, they tend to like you, especially in today’s society, where everyone feels they are not being heard enough. In the process, you naturally create a support system. You might not be trying to achieve anything, but you become more likely to achieve. Ironically, for many meaningful things in life, the more you want it, the more elusive it becomes. When you give up your want, it falls on your lap unexpectedly.
However, we also have to be careful about what people tell us. Their views could be distorted too. For instance, if you are Asian, your coworkers might assume you are good at math and trust you to take accounting jobs. Or, your friends might assume you are bad at basketball because Asian basketball players are rare. What you are good at isn’t necessarily what you should be doing either. If you are exceptionally tall, many people might encourage you to play basketball, but it takes a lot more than being tall. You can’t listen to them mindlessly. There are a lot of nuances you have to sift through. Another way to think about this is that “the person you want to be” becomes a preconception that distorts your path to “the person you always should have been.”
One of my readers who share similar issues told me, contrary to the common wisdom, he chooses not to go outside of his comfort zones. I understand what he means. For instance, I’ve often challenged myself to learn something new or perfect certain skills even though I had no plan to do anything with them. So, I have a lot of skills and knowledge that are collecting dust. It’s like a guitarist with countless cool-sounding riffs but unable to compose a complete song. In fact, coming to the US at sixteen was a self-imposed challenge to see if I could assimilate into a foreign culture, even though I had no particular interest in America or English at the time.
The key factor is not “comfort” in and of itself; if you need to learn something new to become what you should be, it makes sense to go outside your comfort zone. The issue is doing so for its own sake or for your own egotistical satisfaction—just prove to others that you can.
For instance, I’ve always felt insecure about my leadership skills. Because “leadership” is such a prized trait in the US, I felt I had to step up. So, I forced myself to be good at it, but at this point, it’s obvious that becoming a “leader,” especially in the organizational sense, is not my nature. Not everyone is meant to be a leader. If everyone tried to be a leader, there would be no followers and, therefore, no leaders either. Again, I don’t regret the experience, but in retrospect, if I had focused on what I should be, I wouldn’t have bothered.
People who know what they should be (not what they want to be) don’t bother learning what they don’t need to achieve that end. And, “what they should be” is part of their nature, so it’s apparent to others around them. This is what is meant by the cliche “know yourself”; that is, know what you should be, as opposed to know what you want to be.
And, here is a critical detail: It is impossible to articulate in words what you should be or what “yourself” is because language can function only if the model for the word already exists. You know what “soccer” is because it already exists. If you invented your own game and called it “xemocker,” nobody would know what it is or what you mean. Since “yourself” didn’t exist before, if you can define it in words, you should be skeptical.
Another caveat: Don’t assume that the person you should be is a single unified self. It is likely full of contradictions, which is why words fail to capture it. Allowing yourself to be contradictory and being able to live with mixed feelings is part of this process.
Many people intuitively do what I’m outlining here. It’s not a novel concept or rocket science. It’s just that some people, like me, needlessly suffer because the idea of figuring out what they want to do with their lives has been drummed into them since childhood, not necessarily by parents but by certain cultural ideologies. They took the idea to heart and constantly beat themselves up. This essay is for them.
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