A big part of my life has stayed the same for about the last 27 years.
No matter how rosy and upbeat things look, a dark pattern never stops repeating beneath the surface . . . a pattern I’m forced to recognize, painfully, over and over.
I hope sharing my pattern here with you will help me finally break it.
But I have to share carefully . . . starting with general feelings, and then building to narrow in on what the pattern actually is and what it means.
You see, what I’m always searching for is the best way to make the most of my life.
I know I’m not alone in that; many are motivated by personal development.
My constant drive is to figure out exactly how to be me . . . to be myself . . . as well as possible.
But a question I never ask is: Why?
Honestly, I take my “why” for granted.
I mean, press me on my reasons for wanting to be my best self, and I might work to string together something true and coherent.
The motivation has never left, so I’m quite familiar with how it feels: I have to be the best and do the best I can in the limited time I have, regardless of why.
But that sounds like such a happy aim, right?
And that’s where we come to my dark, hidden pattern…
For despite my lofty ideals for self-improvement, my steady driving force for growth never plays out in lived behavior.
Not for long.
My efforts never last.
And I’ve built and bought all the very clearest, most comprehensive plans to change.
I can’t stress enough just how much work and time goes into those plans!
But my perpetual and ruthless accrual of perfect means manifests in only mediocre execution at best.
My plans fail to result in consistent actions, habits, and a lifestyle maintained through specific decisions made in the face of whatever contrary temptations and confusion.
The goal-to-plan-then-failure routine goes roughly the same way every time…
First, I see something good I believe I can be.
It could be anything . . . anything admirable at all . . . like maybe the calm way a colleague speaks in a meeting, the fun outlook a friend can maintain in trying times, the silent strength of a harrowing TV character, the quick simplicity of a random social media ad promise…
It’s the purpose of every profession, the essence of any virtue, the culmination of whichever movie training montage…
It’s basically whatever could be good or worthwhile at all.
I start off excited for the possibility, and prepare to make it real in my life.
I study for weeks and months, carefully laying out my steps, and taping fresh printouts to the fronts of brand new binders.
Then it’s Day 1, and my focus lightning-bolts over to only all the ways my plan suddenly feels so forced, imbalanced, impractical, or otherwise not quite right.
The appeal shifts, and I get fixated on the next good quality I see.
My map for a best self adjusts.
And the most baffling part: It’s been decades now, but I somehow still so wholeheartedly believe each new blueprint will finally be the one to stick and make all the difference.
I cling with the same complete and reckless abandon to whichever plan I’m forming, fully believing I’ve at last discovered the true unchanging nature of my real best “I” self to be.
It’s so fun to build that “I” up in my mind . . . exhilarating.
Then something somewhere comes up short, and I recalibrate.
Even today, after countless restarts, I find myself 100% convinced the “I” plan currently dominating my perspective will be the one at last to snap everything I care about (every “why” I take for granted) into alignment in perfect outworking and undeniable progress from here on out.
Perhaps I’m stressing this point too much; I just need to make crystal clear to myself how deluded I am in this very moment . . . as I write . . . in that I’m in no way convinced I’ve fully faced, seen, and comprehended my ongoing, unproductive pattern of goal shifting and stagnancy.
I watched myself jump to my current “I” model earlier this week.
Before that, I’d spent months planning for another “I” . . . publically . . . in front of strangers . . . even making close friends promise to keep me accountable come Day 1.
I’ll probably feel as strongly compelled as ever to leap to a new “I” as soon as I’m finished here.
But I’m wondering now if the reason I rely so heavily on every new stab at identity is because I might have the fundamental order of “I” and “why” all wrong.
How about you?
Do you have trouble trying to figure out who you should be?
What are You?
Are you an “I” looking to find yourself so you can live out your “why”?
Does “I” cause “why” or vice versa?
Fun Suesswellian poetry aside, let’s break it down to the simplest of all mix-and-match puzzles:
2: A story that makes sense of reality
It feels properly basic that A=1 and B=2 . . . that “I” is something real and knowable, making “why” an explanation of what “I” wants.
But is there anything about who you are or how you see yourself that’s not tied directly to something in the outside world?
Anything at all?
Are there personality traits or qualities you could identify with that aren’t measured, defined, and understood by a relationship to something or someone else?
As writes teacher and entrepreneur Lorenz Sell,
The relationship that I have with the people I know, the things I do, and the stuff I own paints a very inviting image of who I am. But what happens when I take those things away? Who am I then?
Again, take a moment to sit with the question: Is there anything distinct and knowable about you that’s not connected to something outside of you?
The people you know . . . your conversations, how you feel toward each other, your intentions in the relationship…
The things you do . . . projects you work on, hobbies you enjoy, lessons you learn…
The things you own . . . your tools, toys, ideas…
What are you if not for those external things you consider and care about?
This same thought experiment is put well by Philosophy professor, Anthony Rudd, who says:
Consider the claim that the self stands apart from, and above, the stream of experiences, something that remains entirely unaffected by language acquisition, social relationships, major life events, personal commitments, projects, and values. Frankly, I don’t see such a notion as being much in line with our understanding of who we are. There are conscious mental states—thoughts, sensations, emotional episodes, et cetera—but no self over and above this bundle of causally connected particular states.
Notice the key word here: “bundle.”
What if the “I” self you’re searching for so you can make the most of your life and time is really a sort of composite sketch of every outside force and factor merging in each moment to connect and contribute to your current experience and state?
In other words, what if “I” is a story based on all those driving and determining “why” forces you’re influenced by?
This is a concept in philosophy called the Bundle Theory of self.
The Bundle Theory asks: What if there is no “I” without a “why”?
What if “why” causes “I,” so “I” exists only in relation to “why”?
Before we go on, I want to clarify: Rudd and the Bundle Theory are not saying you have no self . . . that “I” doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter.
The Bundle Theory doesn’t write “I” off as unknowable or unimportant.
Not at all.
For Rudd goes on to explain,
Even if it is true that the personal self is “constructed” it does not follow that it is illusory. We normally perceive things in terms of our interests, needs, desires, projects, sympathies, and animosities. However, we can, in principle at least, step back from everything that makes us the personal individuals that we are and consider ourselves simply as perspectivally located subjects of experience.
And you are what you are regardless of whether that can be best understood and approached as an “I” driven by a why, or a “why” explained by an “I.”
Your “I” Story
At your most fundamental level, you’re an awareness taking place in a world . . . as Rudd puts it: a “perspectivally located subject of experience.”
Your senses gather information automatically.
Your mind unconsciously perceives that information.
Your conscious [human] mind then goes to work on what you’ve perceived, forming it into concepts clear enough to consider later and even communicate with others.
Your concepts are your thoughts . . . the stories you tell yourself about how you think things are and why.
So, what sorts of things do you notice?
What do you pay attention to without having to try?
What do you care about?
What can’t you stop thinking about?
The unique stories you tell yourself about the particular things you perceive can reveal specific “why” forces operating at the base of your being.
And when it comes to your thoughts . . . to the stories you tell yourself . . . it’s important to note your conscious mind is never in the business of interrupting and challenging itself.
Quite the opposite.
You tend to hold to how you see things.
Even memories get filtered and woven together to fit your current perspective.
In fact, you identify so thoroughly with the stories you tell yourself that arguments against your beliefs feel like attacks on your very personhood.
Questioning the stories you tell yourself ignites aversion to the same dissipation to nothingness all beings strive against in interests of self-preservation.
So, you’re essentially stuck believing your “I” story.
We’ll come to see why being stuck might not have to be a problem.
But first, further defining the Bundle Theory of self, Award-winning science writer, Rita Carter, says:
Certain cognitive faculties—memory, self-recognition, consciousness, sensation, intention and action—are bundled together, giving us a sense of singular and continuous identity in a single stream of experience. Our “normal” sense of being a self anchored in one particular location and time, the concrete “me, here, now,” is a creation of our brains and thus more fragile than it may seem. A slight shift in the way the brain processes information may destroy the comfortingly familiar feeling of being a single, continuous being.
Of course it makes total sense to reject and flea (violently) from this notion of “I” being but a fragile story created by weaving perception, thought, and memory together to make sense of every outside real “why” force.
The part doing the rejecting—the part that strives to bolster, protect, and identify at all costs with the stories you tell yourself—is called ego.
Your ego runs as deep as your awareness and thinking go.
And your ego never goes away.
Yes, you can begin to see ego at work as you come to recognize your attachment to your own perspective.
Such recognition is often described by practitioners of mindfulness, or by those who develop their capacity for objective reasoning to measure the stories they tell themselves as critically as they would other ideas.
But never forget: Ego is just as present and poised . . . just as prevalent and powerful . . . when you identify with insight into its workings as when you identify with any other trait or quality.
Though your mind might get blown (or something less dramatic) to see yourself as a “why” holding to a fragile, changeable “I” story, identifying with that new realization is still just as much holding to an “I.”
So, ego is actually used and kept strong by any work you do to fight or quell its tendencies.
If that’s the case, why does any of this matter?
If you can’t eliminate ego or its drive to hold to how you see things, why attempt to recognize ego and its workings at all?
In other words: If seeing ego for what it is can’t kill ego . . . but only gives it more to hold to . . . can such a change in perspective even be helpful?
Did we just break philosophy (and religion)?
Imagine for a moment these words I’m delivering are a perfect representation of the ideas I’m working to capture and portray (they’re not . . . they can’t be . . . but let’s pretend).
What you would have then is an exact portrayal of specific concepts . . . pictures previously shown on the screen of my mind, constructed from my unconscious perceptions.
And imagine I’m sharing this 100% accurate duplicate of reality in a way that fits and resonates perfectly with your particular perspective (again, though my ego loves this thought experiment, it can’t actually be the case).
What you’d have would be an understood true rendition of an accurate reflection . . . a known perfect copy of a perfect copy.
Even the best story is still a story.
A story is not the events, objects, or ideas it relates.
The reason we’ve gone to such lengths to distinguish a self that transcends relationships with outside driving forces from a self that’s simply an interpretation of those relationships is ego won’t let your story just be a story.
Ego has you hold your imperfect, diluted, reflection-of-a-reflection picture of reality to be reality.
But realizing your perspective is in fact a copy-of-a-copy story causes your beliefs about yourself to change without you having to fight your ego (or anything else) at all.
No Need to Fight
Coming back to my pattern of amassing designs for becoming a better me, all my plans rest on a shaky foundation of future effort . . . of sheer willpower to be employed from Day 1 on.
I’m always looking to force myself to change (soon) by changing my behavior.
That’s working from the outside in . . . from how I think my life should look, to what I do, to what I believe about myself.
But when I see my perspective as a copy of a copy, my self-concept changes on its own.
Yes, I still grip my “I” self story as if clinging to life and existence.
My ego gets just as caught up in seeing itself getting caught up.
But my new perspective on myself isn’t based on changed behavior.
So even while still being pulled into plans for what I should become in the future, I can also come back to now and see my next steps forward from where I am.
It’s that process of returning and progressing that the rest of this series will center around.
Carter, Rita. “Fractured Minds.” New Scientist. 13 September, 2003, Vol. 179 Issue 2412, p36-39.
Rudd, Anthony. “No Self?: Some Reflections on Buddhist Theories of Personal Identity.” Philosophy East and West. 2015, Vol. 65, p869-891.
Sell, Lorenz. “Losing My Identity.” The Huffington Post, 20 Aug. 2013.