Don’t let anything define you, even if you’re good at it
It’s true that a small blemish in your track record or a hurdle you failed to cross does not signal a permanent setback. “Don’t let it define who you are!” is a sentence you often heard being used to console people who have not succeeded at a certain something — whether they performed badly, got critical feedback or unexpected news. Indeed, one bad apple doesn’t necessarily ruin the rest of the pickings. Imposing labels on oneself based on a few, brief screw-ups is demoralising, especially if there are still plenty of chances to buck up.
Yet, this goes the other way as well, but I get the sense that it’s not emphasised nearly as much. Hence today’s subject: If you are bad at the thing, it doesn’t break who you are. But if you are good at the thing, it doesn’t make who you are either.
It’s too easy to be defined by the success one has enjoyed in life, to make it part of your identity, particularly if you are proficient or abundant in it. On top of that, especially if it’s something material, it behaves like a very convenient tool for you to introduce yourself with, and also for people to remember you by. Some examples:
“I study at XYZ school.” “I’m an X at Y company.” “I’ve been doing X for N years.”
It’s funny how these are objective statements, and yet are interpreted differently by everyone, in terms of what they say about our character. When dealing with people through these channels, we pray that they unbox us in hopes of forming a deeper connection, or just appearing more favourable. But their interpretation of our character and our work is something beyond our control. Yet, we continue to define ourselves by socially acceptable metrics because it’s comfortable. In some cases, it’s all we know.
Why it doesn’t work: heightens sensitivity to that beyond our control
External perception can work to our advantage (people thinking you are better than you actually are), and it can also work against us (people treating you a certain way because they think you are a certain ‘type’ of person). Ultimately, it is a personal choice whether to embrace it, integrate it as a persona or draw on it to make it part of one’s real identity. None of these options are egregious per se, but there are possible consequences:
- Cognitive dissonance, imposter syndrome, feeling like you’re “wearing a mask”, the need to keep up appearances,
- or it could become self-fulfilling: if you believe, you will become (manifestation).
Either way, this means it can potentially give a false reading of one’s emotional state, and/or a misguided sense of self-confidence or insecurity.
Zoom out, and you might see a pattern in this: defining ourselves by the material, good or bad, actually reinforces a lack of control, a feeling of uncertainty. You can redirect others’ perceptions but not fully dictate them. You can’t predict the future, either — that which is objective now might reveal to be transient in nature and might not be true tomorrow. What happens when that part of your identity is challenged? You are suddenly not as good at the stuff that you thought you were good at? You lose your job or a relationship with friends, partners, family? Times get tough, the future you had imagined for yourself gets thrown into jeopardy and the robustness of your persona, built around these material things, is put to the test.
And it happens all too often. People will disagree with your opinions and give you negative feedback. So-called friends vanish when you slip on the ladder and become someone no longer worth associating with. Relationships turn to dust with the wrong frictions. The list goes on. If these things are part of your personality, will you then crumble every single time it happens? The self-imposed vulnerability creates even more precariousness and mental load.
Why we do it anyway: temporary safety
Why are we all up in arms about letting failures define us, but still readily define ourselves by successes? (At this point if I’m not theorising about something in a thinkpiece then it’s probably not written by me) Intuitively, it’s because we find some value in our material success, and want other people to see value in it too. That’s kind of the driving force behind every helicopter parent support group or LinkedIn circlejerk. It may stroke the ego temporarily. But that’s to be expected.
Another possible reason, and the one I have more disdain for, is the false sense of structure or narrative that it gives to our inherently complex and colourful lives. When we use these as conversation openers, or distilled content in the neat little lines of our social media profiles and job applications, we inevitably box ourselves into a gift-wrapped package for other people. When we live by that something, even if it’s positive, we kind of lean in to what is expected of us in that position or identity, doing certain things not necessarily because we want to, but because it seems right*. I wonder, do we assume the persona people give us because it gives us a sense of control, thinking that if we can manipulate that persona well enough, we can sort of control their perceptions?
*Worth mentioning that “following your heart” or “doing the right thing” is not a clear-cut internal conflict like how it is depicted in fiction, like, “I want to be a musician but my parents say I should be a doctor, but I hate the work I have to put in to become a doctor”, more often, it’s like “I do like music but I’m not opposed to being a doctor and doing the things I have to do to get there” — the lack of inclination is where crisis emerges in later life, when one is in too deep after realising it’s not what they want, and what makes the generic advice unhelpful, because inclinations always change with time.
I genuinely do feel bad that we (the collective ‘we’) feel the need to forego long-term mental flexibility and a grounded sense of self that endures the variances of life in favour of short-term approval and security. Framed like this, it does resemble a slow-burn form of self-deception.
What’s the alternative?
In a world abound with polished veneers, there’s no end to a rally against such ideology in hopes that society will care for it enough to change. Rather, how can we go about mitigating the potential consequences of it on our individual selves? Three suggestions:
- Doing things for yourself, because you want to
Separating that from what is expected of you is not easy. What if that which is expected of you has just naturally become something that you want to do? It boils back down to knowing your why — a deeper purpose to figure out if anything is still worth doing today, regardless of whether it was worth doing yesterday.
- Finding that “why” — harshly
Purpose isn’t about a specific qualification or profession. It also isn’t about the things you create, nor is it about a certain lifestyle. (That’s what the internet wants you to believe with their “aesthetic mood board” inspiration shtick.) Don’t waste time curating or fantasising about an ideal way of life by sampling from others, because no one is going to bear responsibility for your decisions but yourself. Your visualisation ability is better spent on frequently asking, “If I do this thing, am I prepared to live with the consequences?”
- Continuous self-discovery
I don’t mean buying a bullet journal or going to therapy, though they can help if you use them right. I mean constantly re-evaluating where you are, not just materially, and being able to rest in the knowledge of what you know to be always true about you — that’s where the foundation has to be built from. What does it take for you to discover, or re-discover yourself? That’s something to chew on.
At the end of all this thinking about how to enact radical self-improvement, I know that I am human and I will never transcend the material and the mortal. And that’s okay. I am, like everyone else, a statistic — an SMU student, a Singaporean woman, a young adult, whatever. Data, institutions, companies, friends and even family — all these parties with some kind of influence on my day-to-day life all use my identity for different agendas and different contexts. But that is precisely why we must find clarity from within.