“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ~Patrick Rothfuss
Who am I?
I believe this is one of the hardest questions we can ever answer.
I began to ponder this tough question in my early twenties during what I refer to as my “early-life crisis.”
Man, I was stuck. Stuck working in an unfulfilling job. Stuck in ever-growing debt because of my bad habits of drinking and smoking. Stuck feeling anxious and unconfident. I woke up each day and felt as if I was just going through the motions. Powerless. I was a puppet, and life was a cruel puppeteer.
Each night, I’d escape into the world of adventure movies and momentarily distract myself from my struggles. My personal favorites were Forest Gump and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I look back, I see that the heroes in these movies taught me an important truth: Our identities are not fixed, and we can, in fact, reinvent ourselves.
Here are the three steps I took to do just that.
1. Recognize that I am more than my labels
My struggles began when I left formal education. After identifying as a student for so many years, I suddenly found myself in the “real world.”
It felt as if a rug had been pulled from beneath my feet. What now?
I fell into an office job working as an insurance salesman. My intuition told me the job wasn’t a good fit for me, but I lacked clarity on what my purpose was and who I really was.
Then one day, I was reminded of a quote I’d heard from Steven Fry. It reads, “We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing—an actor, a writer. I am a person who does things—I write, I act—and I never know what I’m going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.”
It was strangely liberating, and butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I had the realization that I am not a noun.
My label of “insurance salesman” didn’t have to define me. Neither did any other labels I’d given myself or had been given.
My doctor had labeled me as “anxious.” I’d labeled myself as “stuck.” But “anxious” and “stuck” were simply feelings and not who I was. From this moment I changed “I am anxious and stuck” to “I feel anxious and stuck,” and in making this change I transformed from identifying as the experience to the experiencer.
This is who I believe we truly are. The experiencer. We’re not our labels, our thoughts, our feelings, our past, or our life situation; we are the powerful experiencer of it all.
By recognizing that I was not my labels, it was as if I’d wiped the slate clean and become a blank canvas. A canvas that had previously been packed full of messily scribbled labeling words written in permanent pen. Now this canvas was blank and pure. Anything was possible, and it was time to write. Not more limiting labels but an exciting personal vision for my next chapter of life.
2. Define my personal vision for life (for now)
When defining my personal vision, as well as being mindful to avoid labels, I avoided defining from a place of should.
I already knew how my vision for life should look based on the plan society had devised.
Study, study some more, get a job, pay the bills, suck up the feelings of unfulfillment and get on with it, work more, save a bit, and then, when you’re old and tired, retire to try to enjoy whatever time you have left.
Should felt heavy. Should felt a lot like lying to myself about my desires. So when defining my personal vision, I swapped “I should” to “I want and choose.” This felt exciting. Lighter. I felt like a young boy again stood in a sweet shop with a big, shiny coin in his hand.
I took a lot of time out to be still and silent, listening to what answers my heart had for me when I thought about what I wanted and would choose.
Inspired by Steven Fry’s quote, I began to think as a verb, defining my personal vision based on how I most wanted to feel and think and what I most wanted to be doing. I was craving feelings of excitement and freedom, and like Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, I wanted an adventure. I didn’t want to feel like a powerless puppet anymore; instead, I yearned to feel I was making progress toward what really mattered to me, and moving forward.
I took pressure off myself by knowing this personal definition wasn’t final. It wasn’t going to define my life forever. This was temporary, the next chapter. I could, if I wanted to, change the vision at any time and reinvent myself again.
What I loved most about the character Forest Gump is his reinvention of himself. In the movie, he’s a professional football player, a soldier, a runner, table tennis champion, and a shrimp boat captain. Though I don’t want those specific roles, I want that same freedom to evolve.
3. Take action toward my personal vision now
Believing I was my labels had kept me in inaction.
Telling myself I was stuck only kept me stuck.
Telling myself I was anxious only made me anxious about feeling anxious!
Having recognized that I was not my labels and defined a vision for the next chapter, I knew the only thing that would take me from where I was to where I wanted to be was action, and lots of it.
So I began to take make changes.
One daily habit that really served me was taking long walks every evening.
It helped me on so many levels.
It burned off a lot of the anxious energy I felt, it helped me lose some excess weight, which boosted my confidence, and it gave me lots of time to reflect and visualize my personal vision, while giving me a sense of adventure as I discovered new and different parts of my hometown. Plus, it was free! Which was just what I needed given my debts.
My motto was “progress over perfection.”
Alongside the daily walks, I focused on consistent, small steps rather than big actions.
That’s not to say I didn’t make some big moves. Once I’d taken back some control over my debts, I booked a one-way flight to New Zealand. Traveling alone, to the other side of the world, was the adventure I longed for and needed. It would force me to face my anxieties, build my confidence even more, and learn the value of money, and it would also give me time and space to decide what I wanted to do from there.
I climbed mountains, met many amazing people, and worked several jobs to fund my travels, which gave me more clarity around what I wanted to do professionally, which I pursued when my adventure came to an end.
After a year in New Zealand, I returned home to England a new man. Calm and confident, having reinvented myself from the stuck person I once thought I was.
I learned the “perfect time” doesn’t exist. No matter where we are in our lives, we can take action toward our personal vision at any time, even if it’s just a small step.
I know we can’t all up and leave our lives to travel for a year, but we all have the ability to create a plan that makes sense for us and work toward it, even if just one small step at a time.
It’s been almost six years since I returned from New Zealand, and I continue to reinvent myself personally and professionally. I know I’m not my labels. I know I’m not a noun. I know I’m not a powerless puppet. I am the experiencer.
We are the experiencer. We are the main characters in the story of our lives, but we are more than that. We are the writers too. Reinventing who we are begins by dropping our labels and picking up the pen. Happy writing.
About Will Aylward
Will helps people around the world to feel more confident, calm, and fulfilled, without them having to fake it. He is the author of Becoming Unstuck: Your Step by Step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Life. Learn more at willaylward.com