It’s late morning, my second cup of coffee finished, and I stare out the window at pumpkins my kids decorated for Halloween. I see people wearing light jackets and notice the leaves turning yellow, gold, and brown. This is my favorite time of year.
Listen to an expanded version of this post:
I’m not just thinking about the end of a year and what’s to come in January but also the end of a season of life and the passing of the kind I’ve person I’ve been.
It has officially been a decade since I started the blog goinswriter.com and the business that followed it. The next ten years will be vastly different from the previous ten.
Why? Because I have changed.
Not long ago, a friend drove several hours across state lines to see me. He told me the reason he made the trek was, “I wanted to see if you were still you.”
I don’t know that I am.
A biographer of Ernest Hemingway once remarked about his subject: “The greatest character [he] ever created was himself.” The first time I read that, it made me sad. What a depressing notion, I thought. This man who’d written so many great works did not even know who he was. What a perfect example of losing your soul to gain the whole world.
But now, I understand it differently. We all play multiple characters in our lives, each one of us, every single day:
Today, I called one of my colleagues to talk about work. We made a few decisions, and I asked her to do a few things.
Then, I texted a friend to see how she was doing after having a hard time the other night.
Later in the day, I will pick up my son from school, and we will have some friends over.
Which of these is the real me? All of them, of course. And maybe none.
I have always loved the quote by Anne Lamott: “I am all the ages I have ever been.” These roles are all me, or rather they are aspects of me—like facets of a diamond, each catching the light in a unique way. But at the same time, they are just the pieces others see. So who am I, really?
Perhaps a better question is: What am I?
There are, I think, two ways to answer:
- You are the sum of all your roles. If you add up everything you do and have done, that is what you are. And if you take all that away, you cease to be you.
- You are the one playing the roles. You are not just a character in a story—you are the author, the one making it happen. You are not just a parent, friend, boss, lover, or neighbor. You are the one behind all that.
Philosophers and psychologists have a name for this awareness beneath all this activity. They call it the Self. Some of us spend our whole lives playing roles while never coming into contact with our Selves.
So when a role gets threatened—maybe we lose a job or get a few gray hairs or go through a divorce—we freak out. We have identified so much with this aspect of ourselves that is now fading, the experience can feel like dying.
And in a way, it is.
But as we lose these parts of what we think we are, the true Self starts to be seen. This act of finding the deeper part of you that never fades may be the most important task of your life. It is certainly the best place from which to create.
Our most brilliant work, I believe, comes from a curiosity about life and the universe and who we are. The more curious you are about yourself, the more creative you can be. And when we hold on to these fixed notions of identity, we kill our capacity for what could be.
This thing called the Self, which the Greeks named “genius,” has a tremendous power to build worlds, construct cities, change jobs, play with kids, tie shoelaces, and do so much more. It can take on innumerable roles throughout life and solve almost any problem it comes up against—so long as we don’t get attached to any single expression of it. When we let go of what we think we are, we can create far more than we ever thought possible.
Why share this now?
At the very beginning of the pandemic, my friend Michael Port posed a question: “What role is being required of you right now?”
As an actor, Michael understands these roles we play are but costumes donned over a deeper identity. And when we understand this, we can serve in ways where our egos don’t interfere as much.
We are also free to play.
If I am not actually “Jeff Goins, bestselling author,” then I don’t have to take myself so damn seriously all the time. I can be a better friend and dad, a better coach, boss, and teacher. I can be a better writer, as well, allowing myself to take risks and try new things. Because there’s nothing to protect, rejection, criticism, and misunderstanding start to feel a little silly. After all, I was only playing.
When you realize “you” are just a character you have played, then you can start enjoying yourself. You can play the role well and have a little fun with it. When others see you doing that, they can’t help but be drawn into your orbit.
And if you find the costume you’re wearing no longer fits, you are free to change the character. You can create a whole new you, if you’d like. When the story you want to write with your life no longer fits into the one you’re living, it’s time to change it. Just remember: whatever new identity you assume is simply another role to play.
So to answer my friend: No, I am not the me I was a year ago. But I am becoming more of my Self than I have ever been. And a year from now, I hope to be unrecognizable yet again—to you and to me. Because that can mean only one thing: I’m growing.