Perhaps Eminem had it right when he said, “I am / whatever you say / I am.” We are what we say we are. You are what you say you are. (Or maybe he’s completely wrong, because he’s suggesting that his identity is whatever other people say he is – so why argue with others, and just accept your identity as defined by others?) For the purposes of this post, I can’t get this idea out of my head: that I am whatever I say I am. And what we say about ourselves matters.
Sometimes our cognitive frameworks (put simply: our minds), get in the way of who we really are.
I’ll use running as a short example. For a long time, I said to myself “I want to be a runner” — I jogged and I huffed and I puffed, and I iced my knees and went back to swimming and looked longingly at the smooth runners pounding the pavement throughout San Francisco and gliding easily up and down the hills through the Presidio. I dabbled in running, I took long breaks, and I never got past the “jogging” phase. For a while.
Then, somehow, I started running more and I would find myself making time for 6 and 8 mile runs and actually liking them. By all standards, I was a “runner.” And yet when people would ask me if I was a runner, I would brush the thought aside, quickly dismissing it by saying: ”I’m not a runner … I’m training to be, but I’m not a runner.” In some regards, adopting new personal identities takes as much effort and training in the mind as it does physical training.
It takes a lot of time before we acknowledge within ourselves that we are what we do.
How long do we have to train before we become ourselves?
In July, I finished my first half marathon, and yet for some reason I still I didn’t picture myself as a runner. Despite having run 13.1 miles through the hills of San Francisco, I still declined to acknowledge my status as a “runner.” Somehow in my brain, I couldn’t put “me” and “”runner” together in the same schema.
My Dad, once a great runner, finally had to correct me:
He said, “you know Sarah, you ran a half marathon.”
“I think you can call yourself a runner now.”
Our minds can be slow to accept the changes that happen so readily at our fingertips. Sometimes I still feel like the nervous, awkward girl from my teens and I wonder if I’m really capable of the vast amounts of responsibility and increasing autonomy in front of me. I won’t lie: sometimes I’m scared shitless by what there is ahead of me. I feel like my dreams are still “out there,” — and it takes time to switch my brain over to the idea that somehow already I’ve attained some of my dreams, and that life — and my goals — are expanding out in front of me. And that, through careful, repeated, steady progress, I can, and will, become better than I am today.
To what extent do we limit what we’re capable of simply by not believing in our own abilities? On several occasions, I’ve surprised myself in doing better than I thought I was capable of. I didn’t believe I could finish six miles at the end of a triathlon – and then I did it. I didn’t think I could run 13 miles — and then I did it.
The question, then, is: what are we capable of? More importantly, what are we capable of beyond what we imagine we can do? What sorts of things can we do, if we actually allow ourselves the possibilities to dream? It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it — it was that I thought I couldn’t do it. There’s a distinct difference – and to sell yourself short of your abilities by not believing in yourself is a terrible waste.
What are you not doing simply because you think you can’t do it?
Excellence rarely exceeds expectations, my coach always taught me. By the time you’ve attained a goal, your mind will be seeking new ventures and tasks to tackle. You won’t realize how quickly you’re growing until you’ve already surpassed some of your earlier expectations. Despite proving to myself that I was now capable of running further and further distances, I kept pushing the boundaries of a “runner identity” further from my reach, not reconciling this state of being with who I was becoming. I was limiting myself by dreaming too small.
Three months later, I have another confession to make: Much like I never considered myself a runner, I’ve also never considered myself a writer. I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a writer even after I left school and (somewhat sheepishly, I must admit) — I found that I missed writing papers. I wrote ridiculously long emails to friends and drafted papers about topics that had no audiences. I wrote aimlessly in notebooks and spiral bounds and in the margins of books. Post-it note littered the pages of my magazines with ideas about how I would respond to the authors. I had anonymous conversations with myself, in my head, and imagined ideas for possible stories and fiction books. On long drives, runs, swims, and bus rides, I found myself crafting stories and books in my head.
I dreamed about writing books and short stories, but was too busy with my “work” and “career” to actually focus on writing. Somehow, I started a blog (it starts with) in order to let myself keep writing. My friends in the design world (and I love design, by the way) think I’m crazy for wanting to write so much. It was a bit aimless, I’ll admit, but the pull and tug to keep writing was there. Somehow, I was marching along a path that I knew I had to do. A year or two after graduate school, I found myself in a long conversation with a good friend and mentor, and I said: you know, I think I finally know what I want to be when I grow up:
I want to be a writer.
She looked at me with a funny look on her face:
You ARE a writer, she said. And again, I found myself subject to the same “closed-mind” problem as before.
How much of who we are is limited by the way we think about ourselves?
Are we much more capable that we admit, or even dare to dream? How long does it take – and how many examples does it take – to become convinced that we are, in fact, what we do?
Who are you?
Who do you want to be? And who is it that you say you are? This is important. Are you what others say you are? Or are you what you say you are? More importantly — do you dream big and admit your capabilities to yourself?
Today, it is with pride that I stand up and admit – to me (and to you): I don’t want to be a writer someday. I AM a writer. And I freaking love it.
What’s your biggest, scariest dream? How would you describe yourself , if no one were really paying attention? Leave your answer in the comments below.