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It’s not who you are, it’s what you do

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Last week I asked readers to answer the question, “Where are you right now in life, at this moment?” Including emails there are almost 200 responses so far. Read them here.

Each person seems to be right in the middle of a pretty dramatic story. Certain themes emerged. A lot of people said they were in a difficult or unsure position, not sure where to go from here. A lot of others seem to have just passed from one stage of life to a new, unfamiliar one — just graduated, just left a relationship, just suffered a tragedy.

It almost seems like there is a disproportionately high incidence of worry and uncertainty. But maybe it’s more normal than we think. These tough moments seem exceptional while they’re happening to us, as if we can’t wait to get back to regular life, to what we often imagine is normal.

Normal could be a mirage though. When you run into someone you know at a party or something, and they ask how you are, what you’re up to, you probably have a tendency to “normalize” the answer — “Oh I’m still working at [X company], playing racquetball once a week now, planning a trip to Hawaii. Things are good.” You’ll probably leave out any angst you feel about where your life actually is, who you actually are, where you think you might actually be headed, even though those thoughts are a big part of life for most people.

If you read all those people’s different accounts of where they actually are right there, drama and uncertainty are normal, if the word normal means anything.

Even though I think I know better, I’m often guilty of believing that I’m about to “round the corner” and finally hit the straightaway of my life. It’s some kind of neurosis we seem to have — that there is a point to be reached in life when nothing significant is unsettled. Well I guess there is, but it’s the day of your funeral. The human condition can be managed but it has no real cure. That can be fantastically liberating news if you’re ready to let go of the idea of finally rounding the corner one day.

There are, however, breakthroughs. Sometimes when they happen they feel like “The Answer,” but that euphoria wears off when you run into your next bout of problems. They can change the trajectory of your life, though, leaving a permanent difference in how you deal with things, and stopping you from ever suffering a particular kind of pain again. It’s like “leveling up” your quality-of-life skills.

Breakthroughs tend to come in the form of forehead slapping moments where you realize that you’ve been creating a problem for yourself your whole life, and you realize you don’t have to any more. Often it’s a simple insight you read or hear someone say.

After a major breakthrough, familiar problems can look different, and some no longer strike you as problems at all. You can bring your new perspective to bear on every chronic issue in your life, and maybe it will solve it, maybe not. But things will change.

I had one recently that explains a huge amount of seemingly unnecessary difficulty I’ve had with life. I think it will be relevant to some of you. 

Struggle, explained

First of all I want to make it clear I don’t blame anyone for what happened to me. Nobody tried to harm me.

As a kid I guess I demonstrated exceptional intelligence and talent, and I was always being commended for it. The problem is that innate talent and intelligence are not things anyone earns. It’s a roll of the dice.

The kid who gets used to being praised for things he has not earned begins to understand that his success is a condition of “the way things are.” He will be successful because he is who he is, not because he does what he does.

Reader and fellow blogger Brian Kung posted an article a few weeks ago identifying this situation as a relatively common phenomenon, and that there are well-known behavioral problems that result later in life for kids who are praised primarily for their talents.

As I read through the list of typical consequences, my stomach caved in. It was me. Maybe it’s you too.

It turns out these kids begin to associate success and failure with innate, unchangeable personality traits, rather than behaviors that work and don’t work. They become extremely risk averse because they don’t want to fail at something and be rebranded from “smart” to “dumb.”

They become terrified of failure and rejection because they believe that incidences of failure or rejection are direct evidence that they are failures or rejects. They avoid challenges, because challenges always present an opportunity to “become” a failure.

They can’t handle criticism, because they perceive it as a challenge to who they are, not to the way they’re currently doing something.

They feel threatened by the success of others. They can’t handle losing and so they avoid competition.

After years of these kinds of feelings surrounding accomplishment and goals, they begin to feel the world is deterministic and that extra effort is no substitute for one’s intrinsic capability.

This explained everything. It explained why I never applied for scholarships, why I quit sports, why I never attempted a career I thought I would love, why I avoided dating, why I wore drab clothing, why used to be frightened even to order pizza in case I screwed it up and embarrassed myself.

They “may plateau early and reach less than their full potential.”

I am so glad I read that. Again, I can’t blame the adults in my life for the encouragement they gave me. None of us could have known the bizarre side-effects. The point is I have an insight now that can unravel something that has been weighing on me for my whole life, and that makes me really excited for the rest of it.

Insight is not enough

An insight by itself doesn’t change how your life goes though. It has to manifest itself as a change in behavior for life to change, and that doesn’t happen automatically. For me this amounts to reducing an insight to a mantra or aphorism that triggers you to act differently in those certain moments when you were about to make your usual mistake.

The revelation was this:

It’s not who you are, but what you do.

That’s what has been coming into my head whenever I notice I’m taking something personally. Success and failure speak only to the validity of actions, not personalities. This will make some people yawn — they’ve been reading something like it on inspirational posters and in fortune cookies forever. So have I, but I didn’t get what it meant.

Whenever I failed, I couldn’t help but interpret it as a consequence of who I was. Somehow, I believed all my successes were direct consequences of my innate qualities and not my day-to-day behavior, so my failures had to be, too. If I screwed something up, it couldn’t just be that I decided to do something that didn’t work very well, it had to be a personal fault.

I was never responsible for any of them, successes or failures, only the world at large could deliver either to me. The world at large decided to kick my ass.

If I didn’t get a job, it’s because I was inadequate, not because they just didn’t hear what they wanted to hear from me.

If I got rejected by a girl, it was because there was something wrong with me, and not because that time I chose an approach that didn’t intrigue her for whatever reason.

If I always lived in drab, boring apartments, it’s because I’m an uninteresting person, and not because I never made a point of making a home I wanted in a neighborhood I wanted to be in.

The difference between people who suffer from that kind of “personality determinism” is understanding that you can switch out your approach the next time, and that’s all the adjustment that’s ever necessary.

“Who you are” is always fine. You know you’ll get it right next time or the time after that because you can try something else. I always assumed that if I failed at something, I needed to be someone else in order to succeed.

What an unbelievably huge miscalculation! It’s what you do, not who you are! And I’d been doing wrong it my whole life. Maybe you haven’t, but if this does sound familiar to you, things could be about to change in a big way.

I had life backwards. I figured who I am determined what I was going to do, what I could do. Because of who I was, I couldn’t do X, so I always had to do Y. That’s who I was. Turns out that what I do can change at any time, and that has a direct effect in changing who I am. I never danced because I was never a “person who danced.” Now it’s obvious to me that as soon as I dance in spite of the person I think I am, I quickly become someone who dances. That’s how people who dance become people who dance. They dance.

In other words, it’s behavior that makes the personality, not the personality that makes the behavior, and that revelation is priceless to me.

This means the personality is extraordinarily malleable as long as you don’t forget than not only can you do what’s out of character, doing what’s out-of-character is the only way to grow.

Still, all of us gravitate towards that which is comfortable, which is tantamount to gravitating towards that which does not help you grow.

Anyway, things are blown wide open for me now. Long-neglected goals look fresh again. They’re going to happen. My personality can’t limit me any more, because I’m going to ignore it. I will do what’s out of character, I will surprise those who know me best. I will surprise myself.

Again, I know there are some people who never had this problem. They take on goals with confidence, knowing that who they are won’t limit them, and failure only means what they did wasn’t the thing that’s going to work.

Still, I know something has clicked here for some of you. I suspect that many, even most of us think our personalities really are pretty rigid blueprints and don’t allow for a lot of things we want. So I hope you do something out of character today and see what I mean.


Photo by Eole

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Rick May 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Thanks for this, David.

I would take it one step further… it’s not who you are. It’s who you are BEING. Moment to moment. Because, in the end, who you are being in each moment determines what it is you will or won’t do.

Thanks for your insights.


Angela May 20, 2012 at 7:33 pm

Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. Thank you. Excuse me, I need to go change my life now.

Chris May 20, 2012 at 8:35 pm

“I am so glad I read that.” = exactly how I feel about your post right now.

Sai May 25, 2012 at 4:32 pm

One of the best articles I’ve read.PERIOD! It resonated :)

Don May 29, 2012 at 9:26 pm

David – I am new here and really enjoy your blog. This particular post, however, I disagree with. I actually think the opposite. I feel that due to nature and nurture we are who we are. There is a difference between doing something and doing something well. Sometimes trying things over and over again won’t make you better and it’s important to realize this so you can move on to things where you can make a difference.
I wish when I was younger someone would point me in the right direction given my attributes. Not every kid can become a great lawyer or astronaut. It takes a certain kind of person with certain attributes (and a lot of hard work) to do so. Knowing what your not good at can steer you to a better path, versus spinning your wheels doing things that are unnatural to you. Everybody has a path in life, you just have to get in where you fit in.

Max Coleman May 30, 2012 at 1:31 pm

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Peter June 5, 2012 at 4:13 am

Hi David,

Having read your blog, I recognize how I also identify obstructions to my goals as what I have to settle for. Whenever I follow Woody Allen’s mantra 90% of life is just showing up, and start something boldly (like my conversation cafe), I realize the secret for me is to not be a spectator. And the majority of people are happy being spectators. For me, my doing is playing the guitar every day. Even still, I do settle for less in some areas, because I must pace myself. I find your article very inspiring. And I hope all of us readers and bloggers alike engage with life in full.

Simon June 11, 2012 at 9:47 am

Great post David. I resonated with a lot of it. I actually wrote something similar on my blog prior to reading your post (but don’t read my one – it’s long and boring :) ).

By the way, when I read, “It’s not who you are, it’s what you do,” I didn’t resonate with that phrase because my mind still somehow manages to wrap that phrase up with self-worth. As soon as I read that phrase, my mind spat out, “Well, are you doing enough?” The answer, for many things, is “No,” thus I’m lazy, useless, and many other good things. :)

A lot of what you wrote above falls under the term “naturally struggling” from the book “Thinking Things Done.” The reason why you avoided scholarships, avoided dating, quit sports and other things was that your brain was predicting “imminent, unacceptable loss.” If you were a “naturally successful” person, your brain would either predict success or an acceptable loss. We aren’t all “naturally successful” in all areas, nor are we all “naturally struggling” in all areas, but whichever is most dominant determines the results you get.

fay July 12, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Ehh I don’t know how this fits in here but I just feel like commenting. I feel fear and aversion to competition can be a good thing sometimes if not even welcomed. Ok so I’ll try to explain. I was an extremely high achieving student in high school and now I’m at a really good/elite university on full scholarship but I lost my ambition at some pt b/c I didn’t understand the root cause of it. Sure surrounded by so many other outstanding students was also slightly disabling but not because of fear of failure but because somewhere a long the line we all appeared to be zombie like equals chasing after dreams created by our mainstream culture. And the fear that chased away my ambition wasn’t so much fear of failure but fear of contemporary society’s ability to condition those dreams in which we pursue. So I personally feel fear can be a good thing sometimes but you have to understand it.

For instance I’m a public speaker and I’m never really afraid of the stage but one time I was so afraid and I didn’t know why. Until later I realized that I did not want to say what I was asked to say and I did not want to say it to who I was asked to say it to. So I guess I’m trying to say is that our fears are more reflective of a variety of things, whether we are aware of them or not. It’s taking me a loong time to feel comfortable w/ the sociology major/ hippie I’ve come to be so why can’t my goal be to seek a life of powerful but comfortable state of being and empowerment where I welcome my fears and seek to understand them. I’ve realized being averse to competition has actually been quite liberating. We don’t have to be competing when we could be collaborating. I fear competition b/c there is something perverse about it in the contexts it has revealed itself to me thus far. Anyways I’m rambling. Nice blog. Peace

Sowmya S July 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

That was a reflection of myself. Everytime I succeed or fail in something, I feel I am genetically coded to do so. This was one main reason I did not develop the habit of hard work. Unfortunately early successes in life strengthened my believes. But as you said “I was kicked in the ass” in the later years. This article is a revelation. Happy to know that I am not alone.
Great post. Keep going!

Julieth February 19, 2013 at 9:51 am

You just offered an answer to my question of why I don’t do the things I’d like to do. Also you just gave me a little life experiment to try. Thanks.

Joanna April 7, 2013 at 11:51 pm

I started reading your blog a few months ago. I love reading everything you write and so many things have helped me. So thank you for that.

I am commenting on this though, because I had this EXACT same revelation recently. And no matter how much I have tried to explain it to people, no one seems near as excited about it as I am. It is literally life-changing! Because I know that you get it, I had to say something. Talking to someone else who has experienced a similar (or in this case almost exact) epiphany that I have, is quite possibly one of my favorite things!

I am taking a psych class on motivation and emotion. A few chapters ago we learned about implicit “theories of intelligence”. What you wrote about in this post is basically that. People are either “entity theorists” and believe they are born with innate abilities that can’t change, or they are “incremental theorists” who believe they can do anything as long as they try hard enough.

I could go on and on but it is clearly not necessary, as you already know everything about it, so I will try to keep this short.

For my class, we were asked what we would do to help motivate someone who had an entity perspective. It wasn’t until that moment that I finally got all of those messages that had been made for people like “us” by people like “them”–those messages that failed terribly. It did not motivate me to know that Albert Einstein failed math, or Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, or that Walt Disney was fired for a lack of ideas. The only thing I learned from those “inspirational messages” was that those people were lucky; they born with the ability to keep trying in the face of failure. I was not. I used to have my dad read me ‘The Little Engine That Could’ every night before bed!! Still–nothing. I think I just liked the pictures.

The only people that stories like that help are people who already believe they have that ability. My older sister is one of them. She can do anything. I always thought she was lucky. She probably just thought I was lazy. As soon as I learned about this I couldn’t wait to tell her. Her response: “Don’t you remember Dad always telling us we could be anything we want to be?”. I tried explaining to her that it didn’t mean to me what it meant to her. To me it was like a really tall person telling me that if I just tried hard enough I could be taller. She didn’t get it. Which is probably why people like her shouldn’t be making motivational messages targeted at people like me; there is a major communication breakdown going on that is difficult to mend.

My suggestion to my teacher was that perhaps a motivational plan should include informing people of these different belief’s, as they are just that: different BELIEF’S. I didn’t believe that I could change. But I didn’t know that it was a belief. I thought it was fact. Which is why I never tried.

I’m happy to say that I’m no longer afraid to try. Because I now appreciate the value in improvement. And it is amazing!

No aspect of my life has been the same since I read that chapter in my book. As I suspect yours was also forever changed. I’m glad that you wrote a post about it and I hope that it clicked with others the way that it did for us.

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