Before you can create anything, you must first create yourself. The process of changing your life—of pursuing a vocation, finding a true love, even making a career transition—always begins with an understanding of who you are. But it doesn’t stop there.
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Someone once said life is not about finding yourself; it’s about creating yourself. That’s true, and life is also about re-creating yourself. Each new season brings with it an opportunity to reconsider who you have been and whether that still works for you and the story that wants to be told through your life. Growth always requires us to let go of who we were to become who we will be.
All great stories teach this truth: The hero must shed her previous “skin” to take the next step in her journey. Who she was at the beginning of the tale no longer serves her—or the world. Now, she must become someone new, someone who fights dragons or flies starships. She must learn to lead and to tame her inner demons or, perhaps, even to unleash them. And almost always, she must learn to believe in herself. Above all, she cannot be who she was, and neither can we.
Before we become ourselves, however, we must begin with awareness. Parker Palmer calls this “listening to your life,” saying that before you can tell your life what we want to do with it, you first must listen to your life telling you who you are. The way we do that is by paying attention to the themes that keep coming up in our lives: the longings, the discontent, the questions, the desires, the discomforts, the discouragements we experience every day.
What is life trying to tell us about ourselves and who we are supposed to be?
Stories start with desire
Life, I believe, is a story, and all great stories begin with a character who wants something. And that character is you.
Oftentimes, when I talk about this, people will object saying, “I’m not the hero! God is the hero!” Or: “My wife is the real hero of this story!” But the truth is you are the hero of your own story. No one else is in every single scene, and no one experiences this story exactly as you do. You are the protagonist; you’re the main character—that’s how it works. And if you want to change anything about your life, you must first embrace this truth: You are the lead role in this story.
In any story, every character must answer two questions they actually don’t know the answer to, not fully. Not yet.
The first question is, “Who am I?”
Who are you? Every story is, in some way, about a hero finding out who they are, and it’s never who they think. Luke Skywalker finds out he is really a Jedi knight, not a farmer. Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard, not just some orphan. The same goes for Katniss Everdeen and Dorothy from Kansas. There is something about every story that suggests we are more than we think we are.
We all have to face this question at some point: Am I going to be who my parents thought I was going to be? Am I going to conform to what my teachers say I should be or what society tells me? Or am I going to go down this other path of becoming? That’s the constant struggle for the hero: Who am I and who I am going to be? The hero doesn’t quite know, and that’s the point of the journey.
The second question is, “What do you want?”
When I started my career as a writer, I wasn’t starting a career in writing; I was dealing with the discontent in my life. As a marketing director about to start a family, I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted, but it wasn’t this. Or rather, it was more than this, the comfortable life I’d created for myself. It wasn’t a bad life; it was quite a good life. But I knew there was more.
This is how every story starts: with the call to adventure. Sometimes, it arrives as an inner voice beckoning you to greater things. Other times, it may present itself as a crisis: a tragic mishap, a sudden accident, or some cataclysmic global event. Often, though, it’s a gentle prodding from within our souls, whispering that we are meant for more.
And of course, we almost always ignore this voice. But the longer we wait, the louder it gets. Some people never answer The Voice. They find ways to quiet it or numb themselves from hearing it; but in my experience, every artist hears the call, and if they want to create great work in the world, they must learn to hear it, answer it, and keep answering. They must endeavor to continue to re-create themselves.
Once you have made this decision to accept the call and leave the familiar for the sake of a new adventure, whatever it might be, the next part is going to be difficult.
Pain and hardship are inevitable
Every story must contain conflict. The hero has a goal or a mission or a vision of what they want to accomplish in the world; and now, things get messy. Everything gets harder. You run out of money. Your friends and family don’t “get it.” People start attacking you.
If we think of our life as a series of easy choices that guide us to our calling, then this part is going to feel jarring. We’re going to want to quit. We will feel discouraged and want to settle. But if we understand our journey as a story, we can embrace these difficult moments and use them to grow.
This is good; it’s a necessary part of the process. We should embrace it, expect it. Look at how evident such trials and challenges are in the original Star Wars trilogy:
The first film is called A New Hope. In this part, the good guys beat the bad guys. There is hope and a bright future for the universe. The hero has awakened to his identity. Luke destroys the Death Star, and all is well.
The second film is called The Empire Strikes Back. This is when things get really, really bad; all seems lost. The hero questions his worth and identity, wondering if he really has what it takes. He thinks knows what happens next and is dreadfully disappointed.
And of course, there is a third part: Return of the Jedi. This is where the hero comes back after seemingly losing it all. And eventually, we get a happy ending. But we are not there yet. Now, we are in the middle of the journey, when all our enemies and opponents, most if not all of which are internal, increase.
At this stage, we have to face every question of self-worth and competency. We must do battle with ourselves and the outer world to triumph. Here, we learn the discipline of “painful practice,” meaning our struggle to get good hurts. This is when our commitment to the craft is tested. Writing and painting and telling stories is fun for a while, but as you move towards mastery, you will face the limitations of your own skills, and this can feel like despair.
Before you get better, you’re going to get worse. You’re going to get bored and wonder if you should keep going. And maybe you shouldn’t. Maybe this is a sign that this is the work to which you are called. But just understand that this part of the process, and mastery is never a straight line. It is a jagged series of ups and downs, and according to aikido master George Leonard, the true master learns to persevere through the plateaus.
This is where we fall in love with the work, where we, along with Hemingway, realize “we are all apprentices in a craft nobody masters.” And this is the part of the journey when we don’t die, when we don’t give up, but we decide, against all the odds, to keep going.
The end of a journey is an epiphany
Then, something else happens. We grow. We learn. We may win, or we may lose, but by the end of the story, we become something other than what we thought we would be. Every journey both wounds and heals the hero. We lose something of ourselves, something that must necessarily die, but in the process, we gain something more—a gift.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo accomplishes his mission of destroying the ring and returning home, drained of all his strength. But when he gets there, he realizes he no longer belongs and must journey on. Katniss wins The Hunger Games and is not only scarred by the experience but becomes aware of greater injustices in the world that she has, in some ways, perpetuated and must now rectify. The point of a story is to always reveal a deeper, unexpected lesson about the character.
And of course, we experience this in our lives and work. David Whyte calls it the “conversational nature of reality.” In any conversation, there are two forces that both want something, neither of which happens exactly the way the other person wants. That’s a true conversation. That’s reality. In our lives, that means what we want to occur won’t unfold exactly the way we expect.
In a story, this is the moment of epiphany, which, according to Steven Pressfield, is a grounding moment. In Pressfield’s work, an epiphany doesn’t elevate us. It’s not a moment of ascent, but rather of descent. We come crashing to the ground, aware of our humanity and fragility. Luke Skywalker loses a hand. Rocky gets knocked down and doesn’t get up. Katniss is haunted by her nightmares.
The epiphany is not fun. And what follows is a series of trials the hero must overcome to fulfill her dream. And this is true with your work, whatever project you’re currently tackling. You’re going to want something, and there’s going to be conflict. It’s going to get harder, and you will have to learn to fall in love with those difficult moments that, if you embrace them, will make you better. Finally, there comes an epiphany, in which what you think is going to happen doesn’t occur. Something better and deeper and truer will. This is the process of living a good story and doing great work.
Learn to trust this process, this journey of becoming yourself. It will unfold for the rest of your life. I am growing a great deal and learning a lot through understanding my own creative journey as a story. And I hope this helps you take comfort in each step of the path you’re on.
This is not an accident. You are here to do important and original work, and you are, indeed, the hero of this story. I hope you act like it. And of course, as you want things, and work hard to get them, you just may find, as I have found that they surprise you, revealing deeper lessons about who you are and what you’re here to do. And that will simply be a sign that the journey is not done, the story is not over, and there is another chapter yet to live.
To end this article, I thought I’d be a bit vulnerable and share a poem I wrote that actually inspired this essay. I hope you enjoy it:
When I Became Me
When I became me,
I did not know who I was.
It was an epiphany,
A grounding of sorts,
That sent me colliding with the earth called myself.
It was an awakening that stirred my consciousness into being,
One where I did not want to greet the morning,
Because of the discomfort of an alarm that called me to question
Every dream I ever had
It was a jarring experience
To remember who I was,
This person I had never been.
And then I realized as all artists must:
Before you create anything,
You must first create