Who Am I? (And the 5 Questions You Should Be Asking Instead)

Who am I?

If you’re like most people, you’ve asked yourself that question but you’ve never received a satisfying answer. There are half-truths, of course: You’re a mother or a husband; a teacher or a financial analyst. You can define yourself by your relationships or your profession, but those things don’t describe you at the deepest level. And when you try to articulate that deeper level, what appears to be a simple question reveals it’s secret complexity.

As you attempt to answer that question, you realize there are so many things you are not. You are not your feelings because they are impermanent. You are not your thoughts because you don’t control them. You are not your body because it can be ravaged by disease and you will remain. What does that leave?

You could define yourself by your actions, but you are more than the sum of your previous decisions. When we look beyond the identity we construct for ourselves – the role we play as we make our way through the world – the answer to the question is both obvious and completely unhelpful: I am me.

Five Better Questions than “Who Am I?”

If you want good answers, you need to ask good questions. And by asking this particular question, you will have already failed at the task. As soon as you find yourself, you’ll already be someone else. At every moment, our experiences are re-shaping who we are; we are constantly changing, learning, and growing in response to the things we observe, encounter, and undergo. As psychologist Dan Gilbert so poetically states, “Human beings are works in progress who mistakenly think they’re done.”

As hard as you try, you can never get ahead of yourself. You will have discovered an obsolete version of you; an artifact of your past that was once you, but isn’t any longer. In fact, the effort you expend will put you further behind than when you started. This is a law of the natural world as we understand it: entropy, or the tendency for things to move from states of order to states of disorder. More profoundly, entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences that allows us to distinguish the past from the future.

Rather than chasing the illusion that you can wholly know yourself, search for better questions. Questions that are focused, but leave room to expand and grow. Questions like:

  • What am I passionate about?
  • How do I affect other people?
  • What feels good (in the deepest sense of those words)?
  • What feels bad?
  • What is the impact I will have made in this world after I leave it?

Those questions create more space than “Who am I?” Space to feel. Space to try. Space to fail. Space to learn and to grow. Space to be. Those questions create a container to be filled that allows for expansion and contraction. They create a structure that allows you to be accepting of who and what you are in each moment. Or more specifically, this moment. The moment that we are perpetually caught in; the one we call now. The wave of entropy that we’re surfing through the universe.

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