The Roman philosopher Epictetus, in The Art of Living, asked a question that deserves more attention and practice: “Who exactly do you want to be?”
Recently I’ve noticed how seldom I ask myself this question, yet how much weight it carries in decision-making. When we make a decision, it sets us on a path. The decision is the stone thrown that sends ripples in the lake of consciousness. When you decide to be comfortable, you decide to remain stagnant. When you decide to fight anger with anger, you decide to hurt yourself in the process.
Every decision has a metric: Is this helping me become the person I want to become? If it’s a clear no, then choose another path.
Epictetus continues with tough-love coaching:
What kind of person do you want to be? What are your personal ideals? Whom do you admire?
If you wish to be an extraordinary person, if you wish to be wise, then you should explicitly identify the kind of person you aspire to become. If you have a daybook, write down who you’re trying to be, so that you can refer to this self-definition. Precisely describe the demeanor you want to adopt so that you may preserve it when you are by yourself or with other people.
One reason this is difficult is because of our misuse of imagination. As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert said, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” Given this attitude, it’s no wonder why we don’t ask the question more often. We think that the person we are is the person that we’ll be forever. That can be true, but only if we decide it to be.
Self-definition is difficult is because it requires self-awareness—perhaps the most painful virtue to exercise and also one of the most enriching. As author Steven Pressfield said in Turning Pro,
The force that can save the amateur is awareness, particularly self-awareness. But the amateur understands, however dimly, that if she truly achieved this knowledge, she would be compelled to act upon it. To act upon this self-awareness would mean defining herself, i.e., differentiating herself from the tribe and thus making herself vulnerable to rejection, expulsion, and all the other fears that self-definition elicits. Fear of self-definition is what keeps an amateur an amateur and what keeps an addict an addict.
How do we engage in the process of self-definition through self-awareness to help us make more intentional decisions? Epictetus had great admonishments to begin with.
- Write down who you’re trying to be. My favorite mental exercise is imagining the change I seek and working backwards. If I imagine my future as a world-famous author with a blog that has millions of readers, then I need to work backwards: what are the decisions, opportunities, and assets that will help me get there? What does the quality of work look like? What are the habits that will scale?
- Precisely describe the demeanor you want to adopt. Do you want to be more poised and ruthless like Frank Underwood in House of Cards or do you want to be passionate and energetic like Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation? I want to have critical thinking abilities that are off the charts. Who are some people who can be described that way? I study them and figure out what insights they have to offer that give me a glimpse into their methodology or mindset. What frameworks do they use? How do they make rational decisions? What tactics or insights do they use to improve their critical thinking?
- Who do you admire? What are their special traits that you would make your own? Humans, by nature, make comparisons. We use each other as anchors and to understand if something is or isn’t for us. We don’t know what kind of career we want to lead until we find someone who’s already leading it. As writer Nicholas Delbanco said, “To engage in imitation is to begin to understand what originality means.” It’s not only important to understand what traits your heroes have, but to figure out ways to practice them.
Recently I was on the phone with a best friend who lives far away. I was updating him on my career and life situations. As I was reading him some job descriptions, he stopped me mid-sentence. “Hold on—none of these sound like anything that motivates you most, and that’s helping people. The writing angle is there, but the picture is folded in half. Why?”
I had failed to ask myself, “Who am I becoming if I make this decision?”
If I had taken any of those jobs half-heartedly, I would have hit my ceiling immediately. By asking the question over and over, it became clear which opportunity was best suited for me (and interestingly, the opportunity that was best also elicited the greatest fear and self-doubt, which indicates that it would challenge and engage me like nothing else would).
Here’s my challenge to you: before every opportunity, during every moment where you have space and time to critically think before committing to a decision, ask yourself, “Is this helping me become the person I want to be?”