Almost a year ago, a girl looking to move into town to work in coffee reached out asking for advice. Eventually we met up, chatted, and from them on I made it a point to give her tips and link opportunities that seemed interesting.
After one of those messages, she replied with “thanks barista Vinni.”
I often think back to that message, and it always calls into question some of my identity. I find myself wondering what I did exactly to warrant that. To warrant being “reduced” to a barista. I mean, there’s a lot more that I am. I’m a reader, a writer, a hobby brewer. I’m short, I’m quiet, I’m upbeat. I walk quickly, I eat a lot, I work out. I’m a student, and I’m also a barista.
At that time, I was going out of my way to put my barista side on the spotlight, but how could she not see everything else?!
I only tell this little anecdote because it touches on an important concept: how others see us will very rarely match how we see ourselves. What they have figured us out to be will most of the time be a part of our identity, but reductive at best.
Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I wouldn’t even dream of claiming I know myself. I have an idea of some of my tendencies, some fallacies I often fall prey to, my dreams and aspirations.
But all of those are, and have always been, in constant flux.
Whomever I choose to portray at any given moment, in any setting, that’s who I am. My insides and what’s going on in my mind stops mattering, because “what people see is all there is.”1
While working behind the counter, I might choose to put my extroverted side forward. The side who’s being its silly self, cracking jokes with colleagues and customers, and in general just having a good time. I’ll focus most of what I do and talk about on coffee, tasting notes, problem-solving, giving guests the best experience I possibly can. Trying to engage in a conversation about economics, psychology or philosophy is very much out of place (except for the occasional quiet Thursday morning).
The three selves
Answering what makes us us isn’t easy if we don’t know which “self” we’re talking about. I believe our personality to be fundamentally fragmented into three main parts, and considering which one of those we’re working with will help us define the scope of the question.
At the most public level, we all walk around presenting our public selves. Throughout a day, this self will take on a different role for each situation, portraying a different side depending on the context and social expectations. That’s the self who will seamlessly flow from obedient when talking to his parents, extroverted when out with friends, charismatic when meeting someone new, serious at work.
At the middle level, we have what I would call our inner selves. That’s where our childhood traumas, deepest fears, hopes and dreams are. That’s the area we (ideally) conduct most of our friendships and relationships in, without fear of showing our shortcomings, and growing from the feedback.
At the top level, we have our capital-S Selves, our essence. It’s largely irrelevant for the purposes of this article, and as much as I’ve thought about what it can and can’t mean, I didn’t come to any conclusions, so I’ll spare a definition and maybe revisit the concept years down the line.
Although I am making those explicit divisions, I don’t believe there to be hard and fast rules for them. The line between each of those selves is very much gonna change depending on our life experiences, where we find ourselves in, and whether or not an asshole cut us off in traffic on the way to work. Point is, I’ll work with a very simplified concept so as to not make this article more confusing than it needs to be.
The “true Self”
We can discuss for months on end about there being or not a true self, a part of us that is real and pure. A part with weaknesses you’ll never overcome, with strengths setting you apart from the population, and with your “true calling.”
And it might be a worthy discussion to have! It might just be the worthiest pursuit we can all take on, it might be doing ourselves a disservice to not try and figure out what this higher self of ours really is here for, but I find it extremely impractical. Perhaps that is what my “true self” is about, but I choose to ignore it, and instead to create myself at every corner.
Rather than thinking about my true calling while sitting on my ass, I’ll hone my skills and try to get really good at whatever it is that I’m doing, so that this “calling” stops mattering. When it comes to our core tendencies, flaws and strengths, I might be playing myself, but I choose to ignore that idea entirely and work hard to overcome whatever is holding me back. Confucius said that our most natural state is of flow, that nothing about ourselves is predetermined, and I actively and consciously choose to believe it.
Our “true selves,” or what most people see as true selves, are in the end nothing more than learned habits and automatic responses that have been following us throughout most of our lives. Some of those might be genetic, but most are picked up as we’re growing up; be it from friends or family. They’re nothing more than responses, more often than not the ones that took the least amount of effort, we have subconsciously repeated over and over again and are now using as excuses. That definition is dangerously similar to our inner selves, but saying that “this is just who we are” gives us an excuse to not work on them.
The Inner Self
Our inner selves are less public parts of our personality, our childhood traumas and experiences, hopes and dreams. It’s the deepest struggles we face day in and day out, tendencies and personality traits we developed growing up and in our formative years. We describe ourselves as angry, bubbly, stingy, humble, or whatever it may be, simply because we acted as such enough that those became our natural responses.
That isn’t to say that we can’t change those tendencies. Much the opposite, we should still be actively working to improve those. If we have the impulse to lie, steal and cheat, those are nothing more than impulses. The old adage that we judge ourselves based on our intentions and others based on their actions is very true, but I’d make a case for judging ourselves based on our actions as well. Your actions define your character, and as long as your actions can be changed, your character can be changed as well. If we’re out at a bar and feel inclined to cheat on our SOs with the stranger winking at us, it doesn’t say anything about our character. What says something about us is what we choose to do or not to do. I’d even argue that resisting the impulse to cheat says much more about who we are than not having that impulse in the first place.
Everyone struggles from time to time, even if that’s not what we portray to the world. Go ahead and think of the most successful person you know, get into a real conversation with them and I bet they’re just as full of fears as you are.
But for the most part, our core doesn’t interest the world. Your employer won’t care if you really want to steal money from the company, as long as you never do it. Hell, even in our most private relationships it’s hard to fathom that someone actually is different from what they put out there. I’ve had friends confess some of their biggest flaws and shortcomings to me, and in a few of those cases, it didn’t change how I see them in the least. In others, it gave them a little bit more nuance and made me admire them even more for overcoming those obstacles at the public level.
The Public Self
Finally, we get to the part of ourselves we actually can influence more easily. Our public selves are all about giving out a good impression, the best there is. The public self serves no other purpose than to shield our inner selves from the world, project a façade and interact with the shallow world.
The public self is gonna be in elevator talks, it’s gonna be (to a certain extent, and unfortunately) on first dates, during work and client interactions, negotiating a salary with our boss, out dancing in clubs. To make a long story short, it will do everything between the first time we see someone to the time we actually become close friends. Beyond that, our public selves still remain relevant. It’s still the general “vibe” you give out.
I’ve written about a related concept before, saying that what we are doesn’t matter when compared to what we do, and it’s an idea worth revisiting for these purposes now. Knowing that at first glance, only our public selves are gonna matter, I do believe we should go all out in manipulating those to our best interest; faking confidence, self esteem, even happiness if that’s what we need to get through our daily lives.
After we’ve faked and breached the surface, only then do we get the chance of showing ourselves. I believe the distinction between public and inner selves is an incredibly important one, perhaps the most important one even, as we should never forget how much internal work there’s still to be done.
Thing is, it’s hard to work on our inner selves by ourselves. It’s possible, don’t get me wrong, but it gets a lot easier if there’s people beside you who love you and are invested in your success. I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot less inclined to befriend someone who’s getting themselves down all the time and putting out a very bad first impression, than someone who seems generally upbeat but has a lot of baggage. We’re all carrying a lot of baggage around, being weighed down by everything we still haven’t worked through, and we can only grow past it with help from outside.
We’d be doing ourselves a disservice by not allowing the outside to help us. We’d be doing ourselves a disservice by putting the outside off from helping us.
“Perhaps there is more wrong than I myself can see: for we take too intimate a view of our characteristics.”
— Seneca, On the shortness of life
The Wrong Question
When I first started writing this article, I was asking myself who I am and how I can best portray this multifaceted version of me to the world. It didn’t take long into my reading and research to realize that, not only impossible, it’s also the wrong course of action.
Yes, we’re all incredibly multifaceted with hopes, fears, dreams and everything else. We’re all more than what other people have figured us out to be, we’re all trying to (or should be trying to) show more and more of our personalities to our friends, families and acquaintances. Focusing solely on that, though, is the wrong way of going about our days.
Rather than trying to find out what makes us ourselves, if that was nature, nurture, or a mixture of two, I believe we should spend this time creating new selves. Building new habits and rituals that will cause us to give off the image we’re looking for.
This sounds manipulative and fake, I’m aware of that, but most of our lives are lived on the shallow surface. Most of our acquaintances won’t even get close to wondering if we really are as “pure,” as “confident,” as “self-assured” as we seem, and most of our first impressions depend on that.
I’ll choose to leave a fake, pure and idealized first impression, just so I get the chance of leaving a second one a few days down the line, rather than show myself with all of my faults at first glance.
We’re in a world where everything is constantly fighting for everyone’s attention. Ads, publicity, billboards, blogs, topics, books, their to-do lists, and hell, why not the date they had three months ago and are still thinking about?
People are busy. They have enough in their minds. If we don’t stand out at first glance, we won’t get second chances. We won’t get a second time to say hello unless we’ve made a solid first impression.
Instead of asking what it is that sets me apart, I’ll choose what’s gonna set me apart, I’ll choose to slightly change my stance and modus operandi in old relationships to bring them new life. I’ll choose my habits and actions, carefully at first, until they become second nature, and I’ve become a new me.
“Hold yourself to the highest standard that you can and watch improvement pour in as you struggle to reach it.”
— Ryan Holiday
I first read this probably some five years ago, and it’s a quote I’ve kept with myself ever since. Every so often I forget it and find myself running in circles as I ask myself what my true self would like, what is genuinely me and what is not. As I forget I should be focusing on my growth instead.
It doesn’t take long for life to kick me in the teeth, although it does sometimes take long for me to realize my gums are bleeding.
I make my life about growth, and the idea of a true self goes against that. The idea that some weaknesses are just bigger than we are, that’s for self help aficionados. I choose not to think that. I’ll choose to create myself, year after year, day after day. I’ll recklessly trim whatever is holding me back and grow stronger as I push my limits. And you should too.
Stephen King famously said “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” While this advice was very much focused on writing, it can just as easily be a metaphor for our lives as well. The weaknesses and faults we carry around with us are dear to us all; how could they not be? Something we’ve always seen as a part of ourselves, something we always held dear, something we’re just “used to” being and having. How could we suddenly let go of all that?
It’s gonna break our hearts, we’ll change, we’ll have to sweat and bleed to reach it, but killing our darlings is the least we should do to (re-)create and (re-)construct ourselves.
Sources and references:
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffmann
The Path by Christine Gross-Loh and Michael J. Puett
The Road to Character by David Brooks
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Countless conversations with friends and strangers about mildly related topics.