“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (Howard Thurman)
This one is especially for Ariane, inspired by a recent conversation. I feel a bit awkward, to be honest, in trying to sell anything like a life philosophy – I really don’t know if I should be that bold at the age of twenty-two. Then again, I am young enough to vividly remember my teenage years… that time when everything that matters is what everyone else thinks of you. When judgements like “too fat”, “not pretty enough”, “teacher’s pet”, “loser”, “bad at sports”, “too tall”, “weird hair”, “not part of the cool kids”, are what seems to define a person. And trust me, my teenage years, particularly the early ones, were full of those. Later I sort of found my “niche”, but even though the judgements were no longer made to my face, my brain had already learned them and repeated them, endlessly, without my conscious attention. It was only recently that I became aware of just how damaging those little voices in my head had been, and how insecure they had rendered me.
I’m not going to tell you I have no more insecurities. Everybody does. Inside everyone is that awkward teenager that felt somehow they just did not fit in, or the child who felt that she was not loved enough, or the schoolboy who was made fun of because he was the teacher’s favourite.
In the process of reaching that state of adulthood, I believe it’s crucial to begin replacing the judgements that formed our identity in our teenage years with a new concept of the self. Now, a few years ago, my definition of myself might have been something like, “I’m a student… I like books… and travelling… and… uhmmm… I have a cat…” See my point? I wouldn’t have known how to define my identity, other than what I do, and what I like. The unspoken judgements that formed an enormous (albeit largely subconscious) part of who I was and how I behaved, were something like “too fat… guys don’t like me… my hair is too frizzy… I’m too smart, nobody likes a know-it-all… I’m not one of the cool kids… I don’t fit in”. The process of learning to answer the question “Who are you?” starts by identifying what we think we are, subconsciously. These damaging words that are so ingrained in us after our teenage years are what causes us to be insecure. So what makes us more secure? What can give us confidence? How do we arrive at a new self-concept, one that is not based on negative judgements that usually do not even have any kind of objective truth in them?
The obvious answer is, by finding what really is true about us. Ask yourself, what makes me tick? What am I passionate about? What is it that I love? Which are the activities that I enjoy so much that I don’t feel time passing anymore? What makes me unique? What are my talents? What have others noticed in me that they appreciate? What am I often complimented on? Whether that is your style or the way you do your hair, the way you kick a soccer ball, your ability to listen or to make people laugh, it does not matter. I could say what others think of you doesn’t matter anyways, and to an extent that is exactly what I am saying. But of course, mtu ni watu (a person is people, i.e. no man is an island), so our self-concept will naturally be influenced by our interactions with others. My point is that often we take from those interactions any criticism and judgement, real or imagined, and internalize it, but we dismiss compliments. Don’t. It’s not “nothing”.
Don’t dismiss compliments. Don’t dismiss yourself and your talents. Don’t say, “Well yeah, but that’s nothing extraordinary”, or, “Well, everybody can do that”. Your skills and talents are worth something. If someone asks who you are, tell them what inspires you. Tell them what you dream of. Don’t be afraid to share what you love. Of course you are not just your skills and talents. I’m talking about what makes you passionate, what makes you come alive. Have you ever had a conversation with someone about their greatest passion? Have you noticed how their eyes are bright, their whole body is alive, they’re almost beaming with excitement… and suddenly the most boring subject seems interesting, because they are speaking of it in such a passionate way? It’s happened to me with a biology teacher speaking about amoebae, and a scientist who builds little robots that scan the ground of the ocean and bring up dirt samples. I also had the great privilege of being taught Calculus by a man who was a mathematician not just by profession, but with every fiber of his being. I always preferred languages and social sciences, but that year, math was my favourite class.
It’s amazing what passion can do, and how much it can change our lives if we find what we are passionate about. If you already know, great. Think about how you feel when you’re doing whatever it is you love doing. I bet you don’t feel inadequate, or insecure. I bet you’re not thinking you should really lose a few pounds or wishing your hair was longer, or less unruly. When you’re in the zone, there is just no room for such thoughts. THAT is who you are. Share that part of your life. It’s the most genuine you can be – and that’s how connection happens.
If you’ve read this far and you’re shaking your head and saying, nice, but I’m really not that excited about anything… I hear you. I said the same thing a while ago. It can take time to figure out what you’re really passionate about. If you have an inkling… you always took art classes as a kid but stopped because it wasn’t considered cool, or you didn’t want to spend the money, or life got in the way… but you really enjoyed those classes… that’s a good starting point. If you keep getting compliments for something, that’s another good starting point. Like I said – don’t dismiss compliments. Listen.
If you have no idea, you get to try something new. Try a sport you feel drawn to. Join a choir. Get a library card. Learn chess. Plant a few herbs or flowers and be a gardener. Take a class in sewing, or Russian, or anything else that sounds like fun. If you don’t love it, try something else. Think about what you consider yourself to be talented in – but don’t limit yourself to that. It’s entirely possible to be good at something and not enjoy it at all. It’s equally possible that you’ll be good at something you didn’t think you could do.
And when you’ve found that thing that you love, that makes you forget the passing of time… share it. Let that be what others see in you. Not your self-doubts and your insecurities. Those aren’t ever going to go away.. but if you can recognise them for what they are, instead of calling them truths, you’ll be able to handle them much easier. And the first step to that, I believe, is to find something that is actually true about you – so true that when you share it, others can see it in your eyes and your body language and hear it in the way you speak. Call it your passion, your favourite hobby, your talent, your calling, whatever you like. Just promise me that you’ll take away from the time that you spend doubting yourself and worrying about yourself and your shortcomings, and invest that time into finding what makes you tick. It’s more than worth it – and you owe it to yourself to find out what makes you come alive.
Of course, there is much more to a self-concept than your passions. Something else I’ve been pondering a lot is the question of values. Where are my boundaries? What is acceptable behaviour? How do I treat others, and how do I wish to be treated? Are those two in accord? … etc. … Another is the question of personality – part of that, of course, is what I wrote about above, but there is more to that too – being honest about your character traits, identifying where there is a need for improvement… but also realise that your shortcomings are not you, they are just aspects of your personality that you can observe and change. I might write a second part to this in the not too distant future, if I feel like it… I mean, if I find the time, considering my other commitments.
I’d also like to say that this is just what my young, idealistic and sometimes over-analytical self came up with when I thought about insecurity versus confidence. It’s obviously not the gospel truth. Take what you like from it, leave the rest. Also leave comments if you like. Cheers!