Jeff Goins shares a searing tale of adolescent angst and identity.
Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions,
least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.
The first job I ever had was as newspaper delivery boy. I was twelve years old and really into the grunge scene, which meant I spent most of my time sitting around the house listening to music. So my parents thought a job would do me some good.
Every day, a truck from the Beacon News would drop off a large stack of newspapers at my front door. After school, I would spend about thirty minutes rolling the papers and wrapping them with rubber bands in preparation for my route.
Then I would spend the next hour, walking around town, delivering papers to people’s doorsteps.
When I first started this job, I envisioned myself riding a bike with a bag over my shoulder, tossing the newspapers at people’s doors. But when I tried this, they always ended up in the bushes or I almost crashed my bike. So I stuck with walking.
After the first month of doing this, I had to go around town, collecting dues. This was when customers were supposed to pay for their subscriptions, but it was also an opportunity for them to tip me.
So I put on my best concert T-shirt and flannel and set out to make some money.
The most embarrassing question I was ever asked
One of the last houses I came to was the house of an older gentleman whom I had never met before.
I knocked on the door and had to wait a minute before he answered. We talked for a few minutes and after paying me, he said something that I’m sure he thought was a compliment but was anything but.
“Well, aren’t you an enterprising young little lady! I’ll bet you’re going to be an entrepreneur some day.”
Well, he was right about one thing.
I will ruin the surprise for you, dear reader: I am male, not female. In spite of my inability to grow a mustache and my embarrassing proclivity to have my voice occasionally crack, I assure you that I am, in fact, a man.
Sadly, the preteen me didn’t just look young. He had long hair, was chubby without much body definition, and worn baggy T-shirts and lots of flannel (it was the 90s, everybody did it). And this wasn’t the first time I was mistaken for being a girl.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
I’m not sure if it was because I was embarrassed or shy or just because the man had given me money, but for some reason I didn’t feel the need to correct him. And for the rest of the time I delivered papers to his house, he mistook my for being a girl. I never corrected him.
Has this ever happened to you? Someone mistakes your name or something at a party, calling you John instead of Josh, or Katherine instead of Kathleen, and because you didn’t catch it the first time, you just kind of go with it?
Well, that’s what I did.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to live with this false identity as a little girl for long, because I quit the paper route after a few months. It only took a little rain and snow for me to realize there had to be easier ways to make a buck.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing kept happening to me for the next ten years. Not being mistaken for a girl — okay, that probably happened a few more times, too — but assuming an identity someone else gave me instead of my true self. And it didn’t end until I made an important choice.
An ongoing case of mistaken identity
According to Trappist monk Thomas Merton, we each have two selves: the true self and the false self.
The true self is who you really are; the false self is the part you most often show people. It’s the safe self, the person you know others will approve of. The problem, though, is that if you live as your false self long enough, you start thinking it’s the real thing.
This was what I did for years as a writer. I tried copying what my idols did and what seemed to work for them. I tried to find an unexploited niche and only grew frustrated when every market I found was overcrowded.
I chased trends, followed formulas. None of it worked. Looking around at the people I was trying to imitate, I wondered: what were they doing that I wasn’t? Finally, it dawned on me. They were all doing different things, but at the same time, there was one similarity.
They were being themselves.
This is an important principle not just of writing, but of life. What you do is only part of the equation. The other part is how you do it. As a writer, I’ve learned it’s not so much a genre or topic that people ultimately read you for—it’s your worldview. Your unique perspective. That’s what makes you attractive, what makes your work worth other people’s time.
And that’s true for anyone, no matter what you do.
How this applies to us today …
You know, it wasn’t that old man’s fault for calling me a girl. It was mine.
He made a mistake, sure. But after that first time when I should’ve corrected him, whose responsibility was it? His for continuing to believe something I had let him? Or mine for going along with it?
Mine. It was my responsibility. And every time he called me “little miss” and I cringed was an opportunity to make it right. I was just too embarrassed and too afraid and probably too lazy to face the awkward conversation. It was just easier to let him pay me once a month.
If people are misunderstanding you—whether it’s who you are or what you do—ultimately that’s your fault.
So I want to ask: Do people know the real you? Are you showing them your true self? Or just the shadow you know they’ll approve of?
If the latter, then it’s time you did something scary. Time to take a risk and make the decision we all, at some point, have to make if we’re going to do important work in this world.
It’s time you became yourself.
There may be more riding on it than you realize.
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Originally published: goinswriter.com.
Travis Nep Smith/Flickr