Self-awareness entails two lessons: how to understand your strengths and how to accept your weaknesses. Chances are you’ve focused more on the first one. But little reminders of the second one still creep up uninvited at each stage, like if you’re an aspiring car dealer with a photographic memory who can describe every make of Audi since 1974 but you have the charisma of a busted Ford. You will eventually learn where you fall on all these scales, listed in ascending order of painfulness:
1. How Popular You Can Be
This is the first thing you learn in school. If you’re charismatic, you’ll know very early. Like that pretty girl in my middle school who was the first person we knew to have sex, but who remained equally popular with girls as she became with boys. That’s a gift.
Even if you’re not that gifted, you’ll soon figure out if you’re quick enough/smooth enough/zeitgeist enough to impress groups of people at parties. But if you’re an introvert, that isn’t going to happen for you. Most of us can be happy with a small group of close friends. And if you’re the kind of person who’s best in one-on-one situations, then some things will be difficult to maneuver and you’ll have to work your social life around them.
2. How Hot You Are
You know if you’re a 10 or a 2 right away. A 10 owns the world until she’s 35 and will have a hell of a time admitting decline. A 2 may learn to cope by being really nice and by having sex with other 2s. But if you’re a 7, you’ll get just enough attention to know you look good, but never enough to validate that feeling. You can get in the clubs, but you don’t get called to the front of the line. You can attract the most sought-after guys, but you can’t always keep them. So you take care of yourself, you flirt a little, and you aim for someone who you think thinks you’re beautiful.
3. Your Earning Potential
Back in the good old days, you only saw the richest people in your town. Now thanks to New York Magazine and Rich Kids of Instagram, you can compare your life with the lives of the richest people on the planet. You get to know that Cat Marnell is reveling in her $500,000 book deal while you have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to make spreadsheets tracking insurance sales all day before you can work on your own unpublicized novel.
If that’s how things are, then maybe you can get rich later, right? It depends. Maybe if you’re great at math or if you’re excellent with people, but most importantly if you have the energy to work 12 hours a day and still do what’s important to you at night then maybe you’ll make it into the 1% someday. At some point you learn whether your personality is conducive to becoming a millionaire or just getting yourself through the day.
4. How Crazy You Are
This is painful only if you’re actually crazy, not just eccentric or looking for attention. If you’re bipolar, then it’s going to take you some time to accept that you’ll sometimes be in such euphoria or despair that you won’t keep your job or your family unless you take mood stabilizers for the rest of your life. The highs might make you feel more powerful than other people can even imagine, but you’ll have to deny yourself that joy forever so you can be more like them. If you’re autistic then you have to face the fact that you’ll need to work your career around your lag in recognizing social cues and transitioning from one thing to the next in a timely manner. The world is going to continue whether or not you’re in a position to move along with it. And if you’re not, then you’ll either have to choose a path that you can handle or get help that you might not be comfortable with.
5. How Talented You Are
You are what you bring into the world. You define yourself as a chef or a writer or a fashion designer or (insert other competitive field here) and by God, everybody is going to worship you for it. You spend most of your time on that talent and you’re sure that it will earn accolades one day.
But what if you’re blowing your youth on that novel, nights you could have spent drinking moscato in a hot tub and your novel never gets published? What if you spend 20 years pursuing a political career and instead of being sworn into the Oval Office when you’re 45, you’re signing off to allow 2,000 additional packages of Lunchables in Oklahoma City Public Schools’ budget?
What if you spend your life developing one talent when you’re really more talented at something else? Worst of all, what if you’re really not that talented at anything? If you put everything you’ve got into chasing your dream, then the world will eventually show you how close you can get to achieving it. And if that turns out to not be very close, then you’ll have to remember that being a good person has just as much value as being a star.
And if your creative work defines you, then by all means do it every day and become the best you can be. For yourself.