Even as I write this post, I am conscious of my desire to be somebody.
I want you, the reader, to see me as intelligent, witty, deep, and impressive. At the same time, I’m hoping that you also see me as humble and down to earth, like the kind of person you could grab a cup of coffee with and have a great conversation.
I don’t want you to see me as fake, superficial, uninformed, or full of myself. I don’t want you to say to yourself while reading this: “wow, this guy’s writing sucks” or “reading this post was a total waste of my time.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone.
Just think about how much time energy we all spend playing this game of being someone: all the rehearsed comments, the time spent in front of the mirror each morning, or the effort that goes into projecting a self that seems polished, flawless, and unflappable.
While the relentlessness of this desire might seem crazy, there is a clear evolutionary explanation for it. In primitive times, approval played a central role in ensuring our survival. If the “somebody“ the others experienced as me didn’t fit with norms of the group, I risked, not just being ostracized from the tribe, but literal death. Approval, in other words, helped us stay alive.
I still remember when this desire took root in me. It was the fall of 1997. I was sitting in a large auditorium with 1,700 other freshman at my college orientation. The provost gave a rousing speech about the four years ahead.
I have no clue what she actually said. After all, it happened over 20 years ago. But I can tell you what I heard:
You’re special. Over the next four years, we’re going to give you everything you need to be wildly successful. You could be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Just be somebody amazing. And, whatever you do, don’t mess this up.
From then on, being somebody became my full-time job. I collected degrees, experiences, and skills. I played jazz, read philosophy, and did all sorts of other crazy things, at least in part, to sculpt a self that could win at the game of life.
I have yet to meet a busy professional who doesn't share a similar story. Our motives may vary. Our definition of what it means to “be someone” – whether it's wealth, status, intellect, or something else – may also vary. But underneath it all, we’re all attached to our somebodiness – we’re all defending this mental model of who we want to be.
The problem is that all this effort comes at a cost. As an experiment, go through your next day at work and notice how much time and energy you devote to this project of being somebody. Notice the subtle ways you seek the approval of others.
Is it saying “yes” when you really mean no? Is it avoiding difficult conversations? Is it the effort you put into appearing smart, perfect, stunningly attractive, or like someone who’s got their shit together?
And then notice the subtle tinge of suffering that comes from each of these actions. The problem, after all, with trying so hard to be somebody in the eyes of others is that it's a losing game: we have almost no ability to control how others perceive us.
Playing this game is like trying to build an elaborate house of cards on a windy day. We try our best to build a self that others respect and admire. But the winds of ordinary life are just too strong. We inevitably mess up, say something stupid, forget an important deadline, or trip on the way into a meeting. And, in those moments, our somebodiness is shattered. And suffering is the inevitable result.
The desire to be somebody is too deep to fully transcend. And even if we could, it wouldn't serve us in the professional world. Some amount of approval seeking is necessary to survive.
And yet we can loosen its grip. We can start with awareness, with seeing how this urge to be somebody shapes our days. And through this awareness, we can begin playing with the liberating experience of being nobody special, even if its only for a few moments a day.
When we say something awkward, make a mistake, or drop a ball at work, we can see the part of us that cringes while simultaneously laughing at the absurdity of it all.
We can experience the truth that when we're nobody with nothing to protect, we're free. We're more creative, open, and relaxed.
And if you're worried that this experiment might send you off the deep end, that you might do something strange or crazy without a fixed identity to protect, don't be. Your urge to be somebody isn't going anywhere. Rest assured, it will pull you back if you go too far.
That’s the experiment I'll be running this week.
What about you? What happens when you let go, even just a little bit, of this desire to be somebody? What happens when you walk into a meeting or an important presentation with no elaborate self that needs to be protected, defended, or promoted?