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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

Vilx- May 14, 2012 at 5:48 am

That resonated.

Daniel May 14, 2012 at 8:12 am

I love this, David. Really good stuff. Thinking about leaving myself a note “do something out of character” where I’ll see it every day. It’s a great reminder.

David May 14, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I think it would be a good habit to ask myself, maybe around 3pm every day, “Have I surprised myself at all today?”

Steve Mays May 14, 2012 at 8:25 am

My first thought while reading this wonderful post was the Buddhist notion (?) of the illusion of the self. If there really is no inherent, unchanging self… well, every moment is a clean slate.

David May 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Yes, exactly. It’s just a bundle of memories, really. Totally transient and inconsistent and incomprehensible. Yet we think it’s some kind of static thing that limits us.

orla May 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm

I think because all these memories/experiences form habits. a similar line of experiences forms a habit which potentially forms a ‘personality trait’. a habit is just something that we repeatedly do, and habits can be broken when we change the behaviour. it just takes repetition to form a new ‘better’ habit.

Colleen May 14, 2012 at 8:53 am

Wow! You are so right. I’ve read somewhere that American parents are more likely to encourage their children by telling them how “talented” they are, whereas Japanese parents don’t see their children’s success as being based on their innate abilities. Many Asian cultures see success only as a product of how hard one works rather than as a function of how smart one is. My experience was similar to yours, David. I was told how bright I was as a child, and was confronted with results of my IQ tests. By high school, I thought I was bored and disengaged, and rarely showed up for class unless something interested me. But I was really terrified of failure, and I can remember telling myself that if I refused to compete, then I could not lose, I could not fail. My life has been marked by underachievement; I have so conveniently placed myself (professionally) as a big fish in a little pond where I am not threatened. So, where to go from here? You are fortunate to be young enough to have time to turn that thing around. There is nothing more valuable in the universe, in my opinion. Time is key to change.

David May 14, 2012 at 6:13 pm

That’s interesting. Conditioning is so huge, it determines more than anything where we end up. We’d all be someone really different if we were raised somewhere else.

mya horner May 19, 2012 at 2:52 am

We are brilliant. Full of potential. Terrified of failure, which prohibits us from ever joining or trying. We know this. What do we do now?

Brenda A. May 14, 2012 at 11:41 am

The very best things that have ever happened in my life followed me doing “something out of character”. It’s like taking a magic pill. :)

David May 14, 2012 at 6:13 pm

What were they?

Fons May 14, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Hey Dave! I have felt what you’re posting about building up inside of me the past few months, I just never managed to properly establish it like you did here. This post made me fully aware I have to DO something, I can’t just wait to “magically” become the person I would like to be, I have to do like the person I want to be would do. Thanks for that!

I would also like to add that I’m amazed at how you manage to distill the core concept of nearly every post of yours into a short sentence!

Thanks again :)

David May 14, 2012 at 6:15 pm

>I would also like to add that I’m amazed at how you manage to distill the core concept of nearly every post of yours into a short sentence!

I try to do this because as I said I find it’s easy to forget otherwise. I’ve read so many books and articles that made me feel like I was discovering something huge when I read them, but it’s always mottoes and refrains and aphorisms that actually find me in the moment of question and change what I do.

Ryan May 21, 2012 at 12:37 am

Read this: Martin Seligman, Learned Optimisim ~

What I get from your articles is for the most part the instistance of the need to confront ones self in the case of constant negative attribution of one’s perceived failures and/or shortcomings.

(digging a little deeper) economic
progress, sociological evolution, and to a lesser extent technology has produced an environment (especially in countries with economic and political freedom) a higher incidence of psychological disorders.

The great thing is that psychologists and psychiatrists have learned that the majority of people afflicted do not need to take medication or enroll in therapy (in fact they don’t need to read self help books or blogs either). Rather, they basically need to merely decide for themselves that they will choose whether or not they are happy ~instead of relying on their course of life (and Other external factors like our peers, the public, hormone levels and other bodily factors, etc).

Advice to anyone reading:
Stop being so needy. Next time you are in any kind of bad mood simply ask yourself “Why?” Answer truthfully first (how you feel) and then Play devil’s advocate using only reasonable arguments (no anti-me, life is not fair BS). You’ll see how slanted your bias is against your achievement of happiness.

If thats not enough, pinch yourself whenever you have a negative thought and set aside a time of the week/day to reconsider it.

That’s it. For 90% plus of the population that’s all you need -unless you want to turn this kind of quest for happiness through books, blogs and posts into a hobby. Its fine if you do so long as its not long term because people will begin to think you’re either:
A.) overly sentimental (maybe you’re cool with that,our so I’m sorry)
B.). Dealing with a serious problem. (which is no shame if you really do have a problem but go get professional help ASAP)

David May 21, 2012 at 8:39 am

Wow, thank you so much for the condescending advice. I’m sure all me and my readers have ever needed to hear is “Suck it up, think positive, and read this self-help book.”

Bob B. May 14, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Very interesting. I don’t think I suffer from this particular syndrome but there is still a lot of take-home goodness for me here. Somehow I have managed acquire a number of the “fixed mindset” traits, such as being anti-competitive and risk averse, by alternative means. Anxiety is probably the primary mechanism since this is something I have suffered from for most of my life. A lot of my time goes into finding creative ways to overcome it and the times when I am least anxious are the times when I am best able to do something out of character. Zip-lining was fun when I tried it but there aren’t many occasions on which I would feel that confident. In short, I can see that praising a kid for their talents could lead to the kind of self-limiting personality described but I’m sure there are lots of other ways to get there. As you so rightly say, the key is to recognize the rigidity and decide to do something about it.
Great post, as usual. You’re so talented, David: I wish I could be more like you :-)

Shay May 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Thank you so much for posting on this subject. I hadn’t realized it, but this is *exactly* what I do. I had never even thought that there were other ways around being someone else to achieve things.

I personally stopped growing when I switched school districts between elementary and middle school. I was top of my class in my horrible, backwoods elementary, always praised for just being who I was. When I moved to another school, with kids smarter than me, I thought I was the problem, so I simply accepted being a ‘dumb’ kid, and stopped trying to learn.

If I can only move on to applying what you’ve outlined in this post, the world has just grown a good deal larger.

Nathan Buss May 15, 2012 at 12:41 am

Wonderful post David. I have made life so difficult for myself for this same reason. Everything in my life I attribute to who I am as a person and not my actions. This will be in my head as I go about the coming days. I already feel a huge burden lifted. Thank you for the shift in thinking.

murat May 15, 2012 at 4:03 am

I can shoot my load as long as 2 meters in distance. Does it make me an undiscovered porn star or should I continue thinking that I am an average quality programmer in normal society norms ? :) This is my philosophical contribution to this topic.

Gretchen May 15, 2012 at 4:14 am

I could not have read this post at a more appropriate time. After feeling greatly disappointed in myself at work yesterday and being almost in tears over the anxiety that I was going to screw up a project, I feel tons better after reading this. It has helped me realize that I do harbor these feelings about myself and my talents/intelligence. I am always playing it safe, and it’s been killing me for as long as I can remember. I haven’t been able to step outside of my comfort zone and although I am watching my potential just fall away from me I still struggle with allowing myself to grow. An ex boyfriend once told me that he thought my biggest problem was that I was afraid to succeed. And I think I am because there’s always the possibility that I may fail, and be labeled “dumb”. I’m going to have to get over this, or continue feeling inadequate.

I always wondered, how can I feel this way? When I had parents who loved me, was good at school, always had a date, was never bullied, etc… But now it’s clear that I have accepted that my success has been based off of who I am, not what I do. Time for a change.

Thanks David.

Claire May 15, 2012 at 6:08 am

I was going to screw up a project, I feel tons better after reading this. It has helped me realize that I do harbor these feelings about myself and my talents/intelligence.

Clare May 15, 2012 at 6:35 am

You have just nailed it. You’ve held a mirror up right in front of me. Reading this, I felt like ‘I know this, I should know this, why have I not realised this is what I do & why I do it, I used to be smart…’

David May 16, 2012 at 7:39 pm

I knew this would “nail it” for some people. I hope this sparks a change for you.

Alex May 15, 2012 at 6:37 am

He David! You’ve been nominated for the Sunshine Award. Details on our site. :)

Chris Walter May 15, 2012 at 6:49 am

“used to be frightened even to order pizza in case I screwed it up”

I feel the exact same way, the silliest things terrify me, I still have yet to cook for anyone on this trip because I’m so scared I will mess it up.

It’s so nice to know that everyone goes thru the same things. It makes me think that the people who succeed are successful not because they aren’t afraid but because they act IN SPITE of being afraid.

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

I’m going to be repeating this to myself all day. Everytime I’m too afraid to ask someone for their picture or make the hesitate in saying something I need to say.

Thanks dude :) <3

David May 16, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Hey Chris. It’s weird how we all have anxieties surrounding different things. I’m still scared of dancing, but cooking for other people is something I never even thought to worry about ;)

Benedict May 15, 2012 at 7:40 am

Yeah I’ve struggled with this ‘praise-for-talent’ thing too. It’s funny how our minds work, isn’t it? And it’s great reading what an impact this revelation has made on you!

Two very relevant articles to this one:

all about identity within a social context: http://www.socialpirate.org/identity/ (yes I’m promoting my own blog but the first sentence of it is pretty much exactly the same as your mantra!)

and the Art of Manliness posted a new article yesterday talking about acting first rather than waiting to become the person you want to be: http://artofmanliness.com/2012/05/13/want-to-feel-like-a-man-then-act-like-one/

Hope these help further enlighten! Thanks for yet another bloody brilliant article David :)

David May 16, 2012 at 7:41 pm

I’ll check these out, thank you.

David May 16, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Really loved that post Benedict. Hey everyone, read it

mrs. M June 27, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I have been to the site, artofmanliness.com before and have found lots of enjoyment there. I will read this article and get back to you.
Yes I am a female reading that site, but I like men so why not try to understand them more.

mrs. M June 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Just finished it. I found myself wanting to tell my 17 yr. old son this. So I e-mailed it to him. Cross your fingers he reads it and learns from it.
I liked the ‘Fake it until you Make it’ part.

Antony May 15, 2012 at 7:53 am

“When a man forgets himself, he usually does something everybody else remembers.” – James Coco

“In order to move forward you have to leave yourself behind.” – Tzvi Freeman

“When I let go of who I am, I become what I might be.” -Lao Tzu

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” – Ralph Ellison

David May 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Yes yes yes yes

Karen May 15, 2012 at 9:12 am

I found this a very insightful post. I don’t know if you ever heard of Eric Berne’s idea of Life Script as what you describe really fits into this. The theory is that we develop a “script” early on in life to make sense of our world. However our script is developed prematurely based our childish magical thinking and we use it to explain away our experience of the world. So as you mentioned a child who is praised for being smart can believe that they have to be smart to get that recognition. They are accepted if they are smart but not accepted if they are not smart. This belief unconsciously becomes part of us and drives our behavior through to adult life. Then we create that what we most fear, it leads us to our self fulfilling prophecy as our fear limits our spontaneity, intimacy and awareness. Our adaptations of behavior lead us to create our own self-limiting life script. And, as you say, the good news is that the script can be re written. We can change our life and chose to take a different path. It takes courage but I for one know that it can be done.

Carolyn May 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

I use to call mine the “things come to easy” curse. I also grew up linking inate talent and intelligence to who I was. Smart but not inciteful enough to figure this out much earlier! It is debilitating in that it tends to make one cautious and a little too sensitive and much harder on ourselves than anyone else would be. In terms of relationships a little aloof except with very close friends. You find yourself avoiding situations where you may not excel. In that sense it causes you to be an underachiever, the exact opposite of what your parents wanted when they praised you. I’ve been told I had a fear of success more than once in my earlier life. I read your description and smiled as I remember it so vividly.I’m a lot older than you are. I have a son in his early twenties who is very intelligent and talented. People called him the little professor. I saw that as a mixed blessing. Consequently and unconsciously, I raised him to be fearless. His path has been much different and I never discouraged from not taking the safe ones. I didn’t want him to have to wait half a lifetime to arrive at this epiphany and some people sadly, never do. When you do figure it out, it sets you free. When you stop worrying about it, you can throw the script away and improv no longer frighten you. Doing things out of character becomes your new norm and it’s truly the path to being comfortable in your own skin. It’s like a rebirth. Potential becomes what is.
I enjoy your website and I always pass it on to those I perceive may be struggling with some very human issue. Sometimes, you can’t open a conversation with someone not aware of the reason behind their struggles. Forwarding a link, opens that door. Thank you!

Carolyn May 15, 2012 at 9:47 am

Make that insightful. I was just writing about politics before commenting on your article. Sigh.

Diane Hughes May 15, 2012 at 9:51 am

You cover some amazing insights here that are helpful not only for those who suffer from too much praise but from too little. As someone who comes from the other side of the fence, I can attest that little to no praise and abundant criticism can be just as damaging and result in the same fear and paralysis that you have experienced. Low self-esteem also leads one to avoid challenges. If you’re convinced that you’re never going to be good enough, why try? You believe you’re bound — even destined — to fail. There’s a fine line in the middle that parents should strive for in raising their children. But many of us are still trying as adults to unlearn the misguided lessons we were taught by other flawed humans. I think the best we can hope for is to finally sort out what we’ve learned through the distorted lens of our upbringing and see things as they really are. This happens earlier for some than for others. From reading your blog, I perceive that you are very insightful for your age, so kudos to you for realizing these truths now. (Uh oh. I just praised you. Is that bad? But it’s not who you are. It’s what you do. And what you did was search inside and discover a truth. So, praise deserved.)

Terri Lynn May 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast….” has been taken to a new level. Thanks David

mrs. M June 27, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Terrific Terri,
I loved that Movie.

Lee Ann May 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Oh my goodness. YES. This is something that I have slowly been learning…but it’s so nice to hear someone else say it “out loud.”

Anonymelly May 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm

David. This is…I don’t even know what to say. This is me. This is me, word by word. You have officially changed my life, I’m in tears right now. It’s as if someone has removed me from a wheelchair and I found out I can walk. So many years of searching for what was wrong with me, and now I found it in my email inbox… Thank you, thank you, bless you and what you do!

Nitya May 15, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Firstly, I like to comment that there is probably some English teacher out there who really loved having you in their class.
That being said, I can’t help but think that it is possibly a lot more complex a phenomena than that. Asian cultures can create intense anxieties in their kids by simply not acknowledging individual differences and talents. I know several young women born in China, who refuse to have kids because the thought of having to put kids through all that pressure is off-putting. So maybe the Asian method is not desirable either.
I do relate to what you’re saying , however. I have these tendencies myself, and I can see them in other family members. It’s a sort of misguided perfectionism. The fear of failure and humiliation is so powerful that it inhibits any activity that might require putting our ego on the line.
Some people seem to be in possession of a different psychological makeup. Encouragement gives them tremendous confidence and leads them from strength to strength.
I’m very happy to see that you are breaking out and living the sort of life that suits your temperament.

Luey May 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm

David this has been a very intriguing, interesting, and heartfelt journey over the last week or so. It was so enlightening to read all of the comments from your readers and this post from you is really wonderful. It’s interesting and synchronistic for me that this latest article resonates strongly with a course I am taking right now called Integral Enlightenment. When we stop making pre-conceived judgments about ourselves and others and allow our highest self to grab the wheel of our life, the outcomes from our choices are often drastically different than when we let our small self that’s driven by our ego take charge. Like Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in this world”. It is so very true, and like you said, exciting to realize how much freedom we have to create our own reality . Thank you David for such a wonderful exercise and for your thoughtful and insightful post.

Alex Smith May 15, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Thank you for this. You just told me exactly what I needed to hear.

Jimmy Brown May 15, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Me too. Thank you.

Chris May 15, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Think -> Do -> Become.

I realised I can do anything and be what I want. Changed who I am.

Jane May 15, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I tend to find if I follow how I feel I gravitate away from the comfortable. Being comfortable is often an ‘uncomfortable’ feeling, a vague discontent I can’t quite pin down. The feeling something needs to change and from that my behavour changes.

jess May 15, 2012 at 8:20 pm

david~i so appreciate your gift of sharing the profound and pushing me toward growth while also bringing about a sense of peacefulness that i am not alone (or crazy!) on this journey.

this post reflects so much of what i regret about my life (wow–resonates!), but brings hope that “there’s heaps more to go” (it’s monday morning ;) )

having studied psychology and theology, i have often had drilled into me that “it’s who i am, NOT what i do” as a notion of self (and divine) acceptance. a few years ago, i did “do something out of character”–i filed for a divorce from a marriage i had wanted out of desperately for almost 10 years (at the ripe old age of 30). the responses from almost everyone around me revealed that acceptance IS most often associated with what we do–not who we are! (in this particular circle) the process that has been unfolding since that time has been heart-wrenching but also absolutely enlivening at times. i am finally beginning to find my OWN voice and way, and how thrilling to realize that no one must approve other than my own soul. out of this experience, i’ve discovered some of the richest friendships of my life, i truly made love for the first time (again–at 30!), and am going to graduate with my master’s degree and begin working in a field i love in about a year.. i haven’t “arrived”–and don’t believe that is the point of this adventure–but i am traveling.. i hope that, in the end, that is what matters.

i’m thankful your challenges have been a small but significant part of my little story.

Dean May 15, 2012 at 8:58 pm

I did this relatively recently, ever since I was in middle school I became really shy and as I got older I became more anti social and awkward to the point that I was bothered by just walking up to a cashier and simple things like that. I turned 19 and decided to get a job as a cashier and force myself to talk. It’s been about 6 months or so, i’m still a little awkward but I feel far more confident when I talk to people. Now I can focus on moving forward in other directions.

tinafreysd May 16, 2012 at 12:41 am

i’ve discovered some of the richest friendships of my life, i truly made love for the first time (again–at 30!), and am going to graduate with my master’s degree and begin working in a field i love in about a year..

Steph in Berkeley May 16, 2012 at 1:22 am

the older i get, the more i realize not only do i not know who i am, but who i am and who i can be, what i want, and yes, what i DO, change and change again. at 39, i’m barely recognizable in thought/deed to the girl i was at 20.

but i still fall into the personality trap. sometimes. just not as often. life’s much more interesting when you realize you can change and grow.

Pershy May 16, 2012 at 7:13 am

I was in middle school I became really shy and as I got older I became more anti social and awkward to the point that I was bothered by just walking up to a cashier and simple things like that.

Smitha May 16, 2012 at 8:22 am

I stumbled upon your blog from someone on facebook and I am very glad I did. I have been reading your past few posts and I have enjoyed them so much that I have actually started reading from the oldest post! You are incredible in terms of explaining concepts in a way that resonates with everyone. I have read a lot of self help books but none has ‘clicked’ it for me like you did. Keep up the good work!

Frances B May 16, 2012 at 11:17 am

Right now, I am not sure of who I really am. What do I really want in life? I ask myself this everyday. I hope I’ll get the answer soon. Do you experience this as well? Or did you?

Thanks for sharing!


Julie May 16, 2012 at 11:31 am

This is something that took me a really long time to figure out, too. I avoided the school subjects (read: MATH) that I didn’t naturally excel at because I thought struggling made me stupid. Turns out, struggling is part of learning, and I’ve finally come to terms with this after years and years of running away (just got an A in Calc 2). And this type of top-down mindset about life really boxes you in. In my case, it took me a really long time to figure out a discipline that I enjoyed (computer science) because I was terrified of anything involving mathematical ability. Being bad at math was something I’d internalized as an immutable trait, rather than a skill that could be improved with practice.

Max Minzer May 17, 2012 at 2:05 am

Wow, this was so inspiring, David! Thank you!

Gab May 17, 2012 at 6:35 am

Interesting… in my family something weird happened. I have a younger sister, and when we were children my father used to say that I was the clever but ugly one, and my sister was the beautiful but stupid. And we behaved accordingly. She had nice clothes, behaved well and studied a lot (since she was supposed to have it more difficult academically speaking). In my case, I did the opposite, I was the rebel, minimum effort at school, my whole worry was to be the first one to party and become by hook or by crook a wanted girl. The statements of my father, who had no base in reality… had a great impact in our lives.

I have read that for children, parents and authority figures are as good as gods, whatever they might claim, becomes reality. So the child not only believes but also behaves accordingly to prove them right!

What is even more interesting about my own personal story, is that when the time came to leave home and become adults… I became my sister and she became me… we inverted the roles again… so that we finally could be beautiful and smart at the same time.

In my wedding ring there is an inscription that helps me to remind myself what life is all about when I feel joyful…


I have been reading you for a long time… but of late I feel like participating… maybe that has to do with the doing… I have been able to integrate your insights much more in my life, and I like the feeling!

Keep on doing the magic!

Emmanuel van der Meulen May 17, 2012 at 8:39 am

What causes the discomfort comes from the weight we place on the possible consequences.

Gisele May 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Hi David! This is definitely very inspiring and I think a lot of people should read this to lighten up their life.. I guess this is big help..

Michela May 18, 2012 at 7:12 am

We tend to consider ourselves as a defined entity.. indeed we are quite defined in personality (biology and genetics do something actually), but usually we dont have a clue about it.. only thanks to a lot of experiences we can discover ourselves and maybe (maybe!) refine part of our weak points (be aware of them it’s already a big step :D ). I took me a lot of time to reach this conclusion and I see that now Im more relax, taking things in a less personal way, just cause Im still discovering all the patterns in my personality . Btw, I like your blog, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Ian Drake May 18, 2012 at 8:29 am

I am so struck by your words but I kinda liked it. It made me realize things

Lauren May 18, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Wow, that was just what I needed to hear… you absolutely described me and how I treat myself. Incredibly helpful article…

Crystal May 19, 2012 at 1:09 am

I really like this kind of thoughts..If you need to try it on for size, pop in some chewing gum, bleach your hair, grab some bottled water and chill..

John McCullum May 19, 2012 at 12:54 pm

This is such an inspirational post. Thanks for sharing .


Nevill W May 20, 2012 at 1:56 am

The lover of fame relies on other’s activities for his own good; the lover of pleasure, his own sensations; but the man of understanding knows that his acts are his good.

-Marcus Aurelius

Kirks May 20, 2012 at 8:48 am

I remember I once convinced myself that I was someone that people didn’t “naturally” get along with. I’ve even been told by many people that when they first met me they were either scared or intimidated until they got to know me, I guess because I’m a bigger guy and my regular straight face is kind of angry or pissed of looking?? lol

Anyway, years of people telling me this convinced me that people immediately thought this about me when they saw me. As a result when certain things happened that didn’t go my way, I would start to tell myself that this person wasn’t giving me a fair shake because of what I thought they thought of me. Instead of actually considering the situation and my own actions that lead me to that point in the first place.

I was so convinced of this image of myself that even the way I dressed started to reflect that type of personality. Which of course only serves to reinforce that type of image to others. This in turn creates a deadly cycle lol.

One day it hit me. Yes, I’m a pretty big guy. Yes, I don’t exactly have a the most friendly looking mug that invites people over. I even began to embrace the image in a way, and tried to use it to my advantage. Sometimes it went well, most times I felt really dumb. But I also rarely started a conversation with someone unless they started it first. I was a really quiet guy, not because I was shy, but because my parents always made it a point of telling me to be quiet and still. In my culture you`re considered well-mannered and respectful when you do this.

This is when I realized that I bought into the BS and that I was perpetuating this type of image and personality.

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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