The idea that you are at liberty to pick whatever path in life you want is the unspoken agony of the modern person. Call it the myth of personal freedom. This popular, but misguided, belief ignores the fact that life has order, and that that order bears heavily upon your choices, on what makes sense to do with the time you have. The good news is that, although you can’t be anything you want, you have more potential than you know.
The order I am speaking about is contained in a code, your identity code. Much like our genetic code, our identity code is born into each of us, providing a complete map of how we as human beings are designed to function – of how we are supposed to live – when we are living according to who we truly are.
Crack your identity code and the contours of your life will shift. You will not only come out stronger, you will come out larger. Larger in heart, larger in influence. You will find the right friends. You will marry smarter. You will discover the right line of work, or field of study, and place to practice it. You may even live longer. You will understand the why of your own life. Your identity code is found in the answers to eight questions:
- Who am I?
- What makes me special?
- Is there a pattern to my life?
- Where am I going?
- What is my gift?
- Who can I trust?
- What is my message?
- Will my life be rich?
How do you discover your own “identity story?” You must answer each of the 8 questions in turn. Here are what three of these questions ask you to do and an example of how different people did – or didn’t – answer that question for themselves.
To answer the question, “Who am I?”, define yourself as separate from all others. In simple terms, before you can know who you are, you must first know who you are not. What you seek in separation is independence – the ability to think and act on your own and in your own best interests, despite what others may expect of you.
One of my closest friends in graduate school, Brian, was a star marathoner. He could beat nearly everyone else in our informal roadrunners club by at least 10 minutes, consistently. After graduate school, Brian held a number of increasingly important positions in a large, international public relations firm. Later, he became press secretary to one of the most colorful congressmen in Washington. These posts shared one thing in common: they required serving others, a skill my friend had mastered. Brian had made a career out of pleasing others, always more than himself.
I sense that Brian’s need to make other people happy began long before I ever met him.
Now, when I think about Brian running marathons, I don’t imagine him running toward the finish line. Instead, I imagine him running away – from what, I do not know. My good friend never achieved the distance he needed to figure out who he was, separate from those he served.
To answer the question, “What is my gift?”, follow the signs of joy. Within each of us is an overarching drive, which cries out to be developed and exercised. Call it a gift, a purpose, or a passion. It is that irrepressible need we have that captures our imagination and urges us forward. It is something we are compelled to do, simply because of who we are. Your identity is your gift to the world.
Diane is a flight attendant. As I learned soon after meeting her, Diane chose not to have children. Why she made this choice remains a mystery to me to this day, but that isn’t the point. Ironically, she and her husband wound up living on a street that is loaded with kids, from infants to teenagers. And she welcomes them all.
When my friend isn’t up in the air, she’s digging in the earth; Diane loves gardening. In the past few years, Diane has transformed her modest yard into a beautiful garden. She has managed to cultivate raw, unassuming patches of dirt into small islands that boil over with organic art.
Diane’s smile is never broader than when she is guiding people through her garden. In time, I have come to understand that what blooms in my friend’s yard is more than plants. Figuratively speaking, it is her very seed. The way I look at it, my friend’s instinctive, maternal need – her basic need to give – had found its natural expression.
To answer the question, What is my message?, declare yourself on the strength of your gift. At some point in your life, when your identity is clear, it will be time to stand up and be counted. At that moment, fear of rejection by others no longer matters. What does matter is letting the world know who you are. It is a moment of true liberation.
Chloe, mother, wife and good friend to many, struggled for years with her love of photography. She wanted more than anything to express this love to the world in no uncertain terms. But her drive was dampened by her fear that she’d be seen as an imposter, a fear she had carried with her for years, born of the fact that she wasn’t truly a “professional..”
Chloe gradually took on more and more photo assignments, some paid, others didn’t, but she didn’t care. Not long ago, Chloe’s work was highlighted, along with five other photographers, in a major exhibit in her home town, just outside of New York City. The welcome table in the exhibit hall held stacks of business cards for each of the exhibitors. What I remember most was that, at the end of the exhibit, few of Chloe’s cards remained. My friend had found the courage to let the world know what she stood for and, in turn, had gained the recognition she deserved.
Living according to your identity doesn’t happen automatically. How our lives unfold isn’t predetermined. Identity isn’t a form of fatalism, where, no matter what you do, your life is destined to turn out a certain way. It is the opposite. It is up to each of us to learn who we are and, then, to act upon this knowledge in ways that enable us to realize the potential our identities hold.
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