Remember those Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books? I loved them when I was a kid. So much, in fact, that as an adult I tried to launch a book company called Game Time Books which were interactive-fiction books for youth. They were fun and challenging to write. I published three and have seven more unpublished (which hurts to think about to this day).
It took about a year-and-a-half for the company to run out of money. I failed.
For a long time, I was bitter about the circumstances that led to my failure. It was a financial disaster and massive waste of effort. I was embarrassed. A few years prior I was writing a novel and hunting down literary agencies in the search to be a serious literary writer. (A previous failure.)
Now, in an effort to make money as a writer and have fun at the same time, I was writing illustrated books for kids, and even that flopped?
I won’t go any further into the process I underwent over the next few years. It wasn’t pretty. My confidence had taken a series of hits, and I was ready to scorch and burn my identity.
Then, one day I realized that much like the choice-based adventure stories I was writing, I was in charge of my own story. The truth is that you are in charge of your story in more ways than you realize. It’s not right or wrong. It’s not about genuine or fake selves. It is about your own self-confidence.
Your Promethean Task is a Creative One
So here is my question to you: What if you consciously choose to create your own story?
What if you choose to take matters into your own hands, and represent yourself to the world in a way in which you dictate the terms? Do you think this would be inauthentic?
Don’t we all wear masks anyway? And could the story you dictate shape your reality, and, therefore, who you are? In other words, could the story you start creating about yourself come true for the very reason that you began to tell yourself it was true?
These are important questions because our experiences in life are not only shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell others can be just as important.
In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene’s 25th law, “Re-create Yourself,” has fascinating insights into the idea of representing “who you are.” You certainly have a personality, however fluid it may be, and you do have a true self, however hard it may be to pin down scientifically. There is also this reality check: The world wants to assign you a role in life.
You don’t have to accept it.
Greene advises to seize the “Promethean task” and take control of the process of how others see you. In a way, we are probably more self-conscious of our image than ever before. We are, in effect, known almost entirely through the images we represent ourselves through our online footprint. But right now the character you are is mostly the characteristics you inherited from your parents. Your friends and your peers have also played a role in shaping your personality. The world wants to label you and put you in your place.
In fact, the very idea of creating your own self-image is relatively new in the scale of human history. Back in the day, it was only nobility that really gave thought to how they represented themselves to others. Everyone else had assigned roles.
Shape your image and force the world to respond to you, rather than the other way around. Be aware of your audience, of what will please them, and what will bore them. The creative task of shaping your story is like that of an artist, and you are responsible for your own creation.
Even if you believe you have no interest in playing a public-facing role of any kind, consider again that you are already telling a story — to yourself and others — about yourself. Author Michael Lewis speaks directly to it on The Tim Ferris Show, episode #427:
As I’ve gotten older — I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s — I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.
There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There’s the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There’s the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there.
There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are — in the way you craft your narrative — kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, ‘I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.’ And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.
Remember, you are the director here. Nothing has to be set in stone. You can remain true to yourself and adapt to situations for whatever the moment may require — and the better you know yourself, the better able you can frame when you’re playing a role.
Will the Real George Sand Please Stand Up?
Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin married at the age of 18 in 1822 and bore two children (in 1823 and 1828), but she was unsatisfied. She wasn’t living her passion. She wanted more. She wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a writer, and in 1831 she finally took action.
She left her family and moved to Paris to enter a five-year period of what she called “romantic rebellion.” Marriage was akin to prison and she wanted out. (In 1835, she would officially divorce her husband and take custody of her children.)
But in 1831 Paris she was immediately met with certain harsh realities. Women didn’t write professionally. In fact, it was hard for women to make a living outside of marriage or prostitution. When Dudevant first showed her manuscript to an editor he said: “You should make babies, Madame, not literature.”
So Dudevant came up with a strategy. She would play the role of a man. Her first novel was published under her pseudonym in 1832. George Sand was born, and all Paris assumed the talented writer was a man.
Sand was one of many notable 19th-century women who chose to wear male attire in public. In 1800, the police issued an order requiring women to apply for a permit in order to wear male clothing. Some women applied for health, occupational, or recreational reasons, but many women chose to wear pants and other traditional male attire in public without receiving a permit. While they may have done it for practical reasons, they also were subverting dominant stereotypes.
Sand was one of the women who wore men’s clothing without a permit. Sand’s male attire enabled her to move more freely in Paris than most of her female contemporaries and gave her increased access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of social standing.
Now that she was becoming a public figure, Sand went further. She smoked cigars in public, wore long men’s coats, heavy boots, and gray hats. She didn’t hesitate to dominate conversations and offer her opinions, as well as using coarse language if the moment suited her.
While there were many critics of how she presented herself, many people accepted her behavior (until some became shocked by the subversive tone of her novels). Those who found her writing admirable were not bothered by her ambiguous or rebellious public behavior. She gained the admiration of the most famous novelists and artists of Europe, including Musset, Liszt, Chopin, Flaubert, and Balzac. Her reputation as a novelist endures to this day, but what may even outlive her literary legacy was the character of George Sand “himself.”
This is Robert Greene’s interpretation of George Sand:
“Throughout Sand’s public life, acquaintances and other artists who spent time in her company had the feeling they were in the presence of a man. But in her journals and to her closest friends…she confessed that she had no desire to be a man, but that she was playing a part for public consumption. What she really wanted was the power to determine her own character.”
The idea here is that your new identity is a protection from the public for the very reason that it is not “you.” Meanwhile, people will finally be paying attention because you are being heard as your audacious self.
If You Don’t Know Who You Want To Be, Build Your Why
German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said:
“He who has a why can endure any how.”
Knowing your why is an important first step in figuring out how to connect to what you do and therefore who you are. Only when you know your why will you find the courage to take the risks needed to get ahead, stay motivated when resistance emerges, and move your life onto an entirely new, more challenging, and more rewarding trajectory.
Figure out the reasons why you must follow through with your respective goal and cannot live without it. These reasons will help you develop your drive towards your goal and make you pursue it with all your might. As civil rights leader Howard Thurman once wrote:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive, then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
You find your why by finding your desire. Your desire comes from the heart. Desire is a longing within you for something that seems out of reach. Like John Cougar Mellencamp’s song, “Come on baby, make it hurt so good / Sometimes love don’t feel like it should / You make it hurt so good.”
It hurts to feel what it would be like to possess the life you want to manifest, so possibly you avoid it. Let it be your guide. Envision what you want, and when it begins to hurt with how bad you want it, that is giving you information.
What is it that you are missing out on right now? How does that make you feel about yourself and your life? Write it down. Track your thoughts. If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?
When it comes to discovering your inner why I hear a lot of people in our community and in our workshops say their biggest struggle is that they don’t know what they want to do. They want more clarity on figuring it out. A great many say they want freedom. Many also name joy. We hear a lot about wanting more balance.
We all want freedom, yet so many people are resistant to doing what’s required to get it. We want to feel free, yet are scared to do what’s necessary to become free. It might take courage, or it might come from taking small actions over time, voting on behalf of yourself. No single instance will transform you, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your identity. It requires following your authentic values and beliefs, and building strong boundaries to protect yourself from what others will tell you is right for you or try to force on you.
What you focused on in the past has made you the person you are now. And what you focus on from this moment forward shapes the person you’ll become.
Take obstacles as personal challenges to move through. Be your own highest authority on life and work. That means you are responsible for your own freedom, and therefore you are responsible for your story. We live in extremely unusual times right now. People are freeing themselves from various tyrannies all over the United States and throughout the world. It’s time to speak out and speak up. Don’t let employers or others keep you from thinking your own thoughts, and taking your own bold, unique actions.
The Root Cause of Failure
In order to think realistically about growing beyond critical voices, one important principle should be discerned here. It is a concept Carol Dweck has popularized, the growth mindset versus the fixed or rigid mindset. Similarly, as the 20th-century martial artist and actor, Bruce Lee refrained:
“Have a mind like water, my friends.”
Carol Dweck’s studies of students, men and women, parents and teachers, distills into this fundamental principle: People with a rigid sense of self take failure badly. They see it as evidence of their limitations and fear it. Fear of failure causes failure.
And don’t try to say you’re not playing bigger because you’re modest and you can see through the pretension of trying to be “a name.” That’s your ego talking. It’s actually you’re ego that is scared. You have to let that shit go.
By contrast, those who understand that a particular talent can be developed accept setbacks. Setbacks are information on how to do better next time. A mind like water means taking on the shape of the vessel you’re poured into, being abandoned to adaptability.
Many other studies have shown that even if we have rigid responses in some areas of our lives, we may have adaptive and clear senses of positive self-regard in others. Be open to experience, and learn to cultivate a positive voice.
But how do we get into fixed mindsets in the first place? We all want answers, but many require definitive answers. We want things black and white so they can form their identity with what seems like clarity and be comfortable in a confined scope of knowledge and understanding.
The root cause is always fear. Things that are unknowable create anxiety rooted in fear. The only way out is to create a false sense of security through a framework that appears to create order — or perhaps does create an order, however limited.
I believe _____ and I am right, and those who believe _____ are wrong.
It is a waste of time to draw, not when I need to make a living.
I should never speak in front of people because I get so nervous when I speak out.
I will never run because I am in such poor shape it wouldn’t be worth the effort.
I am naturally good at whatever I do, there is no need to chase excellence.
We want to recognize our particular traits and preferences so we can act accordingly. We tell ourselves it’s a sensible response in a chaotic and uncertain world. We have certain beliefs about ourselves or the world and we’re threatened when other information may conflict with those beliefs — even if they’re apparently positive self-beliefs.
These narratives keep us fixed in place. Growth comes slowly or not at all.
You have the choice to build a character with a story all your own. You don’t have to listen to what others tell you. You don’t have to live in fear of failing all over again. You have the power to recreate yourself and tell your own story.
Now, let’s hear it.