What have you learned about yourself? In the 8 or 80 years that you have been alive, what is it that you regard as “you”? What do we base our sense of self off of? How we look? How we behave? What angers us? Or what makes us happy? Are we just a compilation of past events that we have partaken in? Are we, as the old Linkin Park song says, “All we are is everything we have done”? Or are we the now, the present, the behaviors and attitudes we currently hold? In a sense, who are we?
I know it is an odd, and seemingly difficult question to ask, where we usually fill in the blank with descriptive details outlining things about us, such as being a mom, being a firefighter, enjoying to paint, or sing, or run, or dance. When we ask others, or when we are asked, to state who we are, we usually follow with labels such as these, but those labels are what we do, not who we are. We are not degrees hung on a wall, or money in a bank account, or even the accumulation of knowledge stored in the lobes of our brain. So then if we aren’t what we do, and we aren’t how we do it, then who are we?
I found myself fascinated with this idea of how we determine who are we, and how fluid it is as the days pass. Because of this, I asked others around to describe themselves to me. What followed seemed to be a list of achievements, ranging from advanced degrees, to years spent in a profession, to some even mentioning the profession itself. It was there when I asked myself, “Are we what we accomplish?”
Are people in the medical profession just doctors, people who teach just teachers, or people who build just construction workers? Are we just a laundry list of awards, achievements, degrees, and years lived? Maybe we are just a running total of what our days have ended with. Therefore, am I just a high school graduate with a track record of dropping out?
I don’t believe so. So I asked more people I come into contact with to describe their friends to me. This is where I heard the words such as caring, loving, hilarious, hard worker, athletic, and even “a once in a lifetime type of person.” Why is it that we describe ourselves based on achievements, but others describe us based on behaviors?
I just finished sitting in on a teleconference with Native Agencies across the state of Alaska, when where we were focusing, and seemingly coming up empty with ideas on how we as a whole could work to help the issues that plague Native Alaskan communities. We ended the conference on a blank note; no one had any ideas. As we sat in the room, 4 of us total, with our heads down and the shame of feeling as though we have let the youth down rushing over us, someone in the room finally spoke up.
“We focus on learning exteriorly.” In our classrooms and our homes, we tell our youth that grades, degrees, and what they know is what makes them successful. “We spent so long forcing memorization into their brains as if that is going to teach our kids anything besides how to regurgitate someone else’s thoughts. We place such a high value on exterior knowledge that it seems this is all we focus on. We don’t teach our youth to be good people, we don’t teach them how to care, or love, or show empathy. We don’t teach them how to learn interiorly, just exteriorly. This is where our problem lies.”
Maybe this is why we describe ourselves as what we do and have achieved, rather than how we behave. Our society places such a premium on exterior learning that it seems almost wrong to do anything but focus on this. We praise those who reach the top of the food chain, who seem to know everything, who make the big money, but is this what makes us successful in life? Is this where we should learn?
In his Ted Talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study of Happiness”, Robert Waldinger shares how in a survey on goals, 80% of young adults stated that being rich is their number one, and over 50% stated that being famous is a life goal. As Waldinger shares the “Harvard Study of Adult Development”, which is a study of 724 men throughout every stage in their life. This study surveyed their happiness levels year in and year old. Since 1938, this study tracked two groups of men, one group of graduates from Harvard, and one group from the poorest and most disadvantaged families in Boston. When the subjects were in their 80’s, the researchers looked back at age 50 to see if they could find a factor that correlates directly with health and aging. “The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50, where the most healthy at age 80.”
So what correlated with happiness? As the subjects began to reach the end of their lives, the researchers gathered the results of who led the happiest lives, and what was a common denominator among them? “(Despite the fact that many of the subjects listed wealth as a priority in their adult adult phase), over and over, our study has shown that the people who fared the best where the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community,” Waldinger tells us.
Why do we place such an importance on what we achieve over all else? If studies like this show the correlation between building relationships with those you love, and happiness, why don’t we ever seem to listen? Why is it that we feel we must chase what magazine cover sell as the perfect life? Is this a lesson who are destined to learn the hard way? Are we destined to sell our live’s on a devil’s bargain to hunt for fame and wealth, only to realize that what would have made us whole are those around us?
I am no stranger to this deal. I’ve learned many things about myself. I learned that I have a weak spot for ego, and that the possibility of being the best, the greatest, the one pulls me in like an addiction. I learned that I craved for attention in this way, and sometimes I still do. I learned that I was so focused, on what David Brooks calls, “Resume Virtues”, which are the things we accomplish that sell us in the marketplace. I left of a journey of good, with the intentions of bad. I sold my pilgrimage with the facade that I was doing it to help others, when in reality the lure of being a savior had me hooked. I sold myself as a hero in the beginning, some type of martyr searching for salvation, thinking it lied within the masses.
I was wrong. Although I did good, and grew as a human being, I did it for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to be the one who they spoke about at high school football games. I allowed a sense of pride, a need for others to know me, to call the shots. I learned that this wasn't a way to live. I learned that I find peace in developing, as David Brooks again coined, “Eulogy Virtues”, which is the characteristics they talk about at our funeral. I learned that while fulfilling the Ego’s sense of accomplishment is tempting, it is an empty haul that only leaves us begging for more.
This whole journey was for me to label myself as a success, but as we all realize as we age, success in life is defined by those who live it, not by those on the outside of it.
Chasing fame and wealth is not necessarily a bad thing, but having it be your only aim, and your proposed key to happiness is. Jim Carrey tell us, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.”
So, what are we? I know this writing took an off-course detour, but what do we define as us? I believe this fall into what we define as success. Just because society favors exterior learning, and success on the big stage, does not mean that this has to be what we deem as our end goal. If we fall into this, maybe this is why we state ourselves as what we have achieved.
Never settle for a life that doesn't fulfill your sense of purpose, but don’t find yourself making empty deals with life. Happiness, as it seems, relies on success being a measure we set internally. Therefore, if we shift what we define as success to something we can control (as oftentimes, wealth and fame are a collision of coincidence, and luck), then we can shift the sense of self we define for us.
Regardless of how you feel about this idea, the beauty of it, is that you get to decide what success is to you, and therefore, who you are.