Who are you?

I challenge you to find a question harder to answer than that. As discussed in “An Open Letter to College Students”, our goal with this series is to participate in our own becoming, and the first step in becoming who we want to be is to find out who we are now. So again, I ask you, “Who are you?”

If you are like me and felt unsure of your answer or confused with your purpose in life, then fear not because Henry Thoreau once said, “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Therefore, now is the right time to not only find ourselves, but also begin to become who we want to be.

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” – Stephen R. Covey

Let’s start at the core of who we are—our essence. Essence can be defined as the one characteristic or trait of a larger being or object that when removed, renders the purpose of the larger being/object pointless. A good example would be a pencil. The purpose of a pencil is to write, so you can take the eraser, paint and even wood away, but as long there is lead, it would still be a pencil. However, if you were to take the lead away, it would no longer be a pencil.

What does that mean for us? It means that we all have “something” inside of us that embodies the whole of who we are. Now when we apply this to ourselves, it might seem difficult to pinpoint why we are unique compared to others, as well all have a brain, a heart, a soul etc. However, If we look at Covey’s quote above, to “sow a character” or to become who we are now, we must first “sow a thought” to “reap an action” and “sow an action” to “reap a habit”; the same habits which then define our character, or who we are. Therefore if we think about the concept of essence, a small “something” that symbolizes the whole, and combine it with Covey’s definition of a character, it turns out everybody’s essence is the same because our is essence is simply our thoughts or what we know, and our “actions” or what we do.

Although it seems overly simplified, everybody’s essence is actually the same because our essence is simply what we know and what we do, and it is what we know and do that separates us from each otherIf we are no more than our thoughts and actions, then by understanding these thoughts and actions, we can understand who we are.

We are what we know

As mentioned above, the first step of building our character or participating in our own becoming, is “sowing a thought”, so let’s examine a person who truly understood the power of knowledge, Socrates. When the Oracle in Ancient Greece proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man of all, Socrates did not believe it and actively pursued ways to disprove the Oracle’s words by finding and talking to as many “wise men” as possible. The problem was, all these “wise men” were so certain of their own knowledge that they had not only stopped actively looking to add to their knowledge, but they had also assumed that they were always right and did not realize how little they actually knew about their areas of expertise. It was only when Socrates realized that nobody else was as willing to take on his “I know nothing” mindset and continuously question himself, to grow and acquire more knowledge, that Socrates accepted the Oracle’s proclamation that he was the wisest man.

The lesson we can learn from Socrates is we need to take on the mindset that we know nothing. Let’s examine Covey’s quote again, “Sow a thought, reap an action”. The essence of this quote is without having the first piece of knowledge; it is not possible to take action. In the modern world where it’s so easy to access many different types of information, we may automatically assume that we are experts in a certain area. However with new research and information coming out every day that may conflict which our previous knowledge, only by taking on the “we know nothing” mindset and truly exploring what is good or correct knowledge can we start to learn and make an impact. A personal example is going to the gym. I’ve always been the skinny kid at school, so naturally I’ve always wanted to bulk up and be more confident with my body.  In July of this year, I marked my 3rd anniversary of becoming a regular (3-5 times a week) gym goer, but only had 10 additional pounds to show for it. Even though I had taken action and really put in the effort, I wasn’t gaining any real results. I was frustrated with the results I had and sick of the contradicting advice I had gotten from my friends and trainers. So at the beginning of July, rather than training hard, I decided to train smart and read about how to gain muscle correctly (Bigger, Leaner, Stronger if you’re interested). As it turns out, going to the gym was only partially responsible for muscle growth and it was what happened outside of the gym (rest, diet, cardio etc.) that really mattered. With this new knowledge, I managed to put on 10 pounds of muscle in six weeks, the same amount I had put on over the previous three years.

For 3 years, like the supposed “wise men” in Socrates’ story, I thought I had the right knowledge.  I blindly pursued my dream, didn’t think further and hoped eventually results would come. However, by taking Socrates’ approach of continually questioning what I know, I realized I actually knew nothing about gaining muscle which allowed me to learn the correct knowledge and make a real change to myself. It can be tempting to just jump in and try to make a difference right away, but it always pays to have the right knowledge first before committing to an action. Now let’s explore the opposite end of the spectrum, what happens when we don’t do.

We are what we do

Let’s borrow a part Stephen Covey’s quote once more, “sow a habit, reap a character”. Once again, let’s examine the essence of this quote: our character comes from our habits, or in other words, our habits define who we are. As mentioned earlier, we are what we know and what we do, but more importantly according to Covey’s quote, we are not only what we do, but we are actually our habits, or what we repeatedly do.

Given we are what we know and we are what we repeatedly do, how do we tie everything together to participate in our own becoming? As Bruce Lee once said, “Knowing is not enough, we must do”, because no matter how much knowledge we have, nothing will change unless we apply the knowledge to change our habits, which then changes who we are. This is the part that most people fail at because it is hard, but with determination and a bit of grit it is possible to change a habit.

Around a month ago, Daniel DiPiazza wrote a  fantastic article about how the top 1% of people make progress. The premise is simple, when you build your habit for the day, you get a check mark for that day, and your only job is to get as many check marks as possible. The article was so simple, yet so powerful. In the past, I was always easily distracted and wanted to find a solution, and one idea that I heard was meditation because it required the meditator to focus the entire time on him or herself. I took Daniel’s advice, downloaded a habit-building app, and have managed to meditate 26 out of the past 30 days. Did I meditate every single day? No, I forgot some days, but it didn’t actually matter because I could already see the improvement how meditating improved my ability to focus at will and that was enough motivation to keep going.

Now if you look at my entire process with Daniel’s article, I received new knowledge and applied the knowledge by doing, reaped the benefits of making a change, and so participated in my own becoming. As you can see, it’s actually really simple, so what you are waiting for? Let’s get participating!

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