Instead Of Defining Yourself In a Notebook, Do Shit That Defines You

An important lesson from Steven Pinker.

Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

Steven Pinker — a man whose brain is like the Internet — said:

“Focus on effectiveness — what your actions will accomplish — and not self-actualization or other ways of trying to feel good about yourself.”

— Steven Pinker, “Tribe of Mentors.”

In our individualistic (and, quite often, narcissistic) culture, we’re used to spending too much time defining ourselves.

We ask ourselves questions such as, “Well, who am I really?” and write down the answers in overpriced leather notebooks called Moleskines.

I know I do. I am insane.

Most people I know tell me I am obsessed with myself — I spend a stupid number of hours each day, contemplating where I am going and how that fits into the image I’ve constructed of myself.

Instead of writing down ideas on my phone, I carry a pocket-size physical notebook and a pen. And about 5–10 times a day, I stop whatever I am doing, make an awkward pose — especially if I am walking on the street — and write down an idea that just popped into my head. (It’s tough to write standing up!)

Sometimes I look more like a waiter that takes orders from trees and buildings than a thoughtful person.

I told you I am insane.

But so are you.

The Problems With Self-Help

Self-help is the real culprit. Their job is not really to help us; it’s to make us feel good. They should be called “feel-good” books, not self-help, as there isn’t much help there. I don’t know anybody who has honestly changed their life after reading a book — and neither do you probably.

These books want us to wake up before dawn, write “morning pages,” be grateful, meditate, write a blog post, and recalibrate our goals according to our “long-term vision” — all before breakfast.

(Quick aside: what’s this thing with doing a bunch of stuff before breakfast? Am I the only person who finds this tendency to postpone the first meal of the day weird?)

By pushing us to do tasks that are supposed to help us “define our lives”, self-help wants us to become scriptwriters in our life.

But what if our lives don’t need a definition? What if they are defined by actions, not thoughts? What if we’re not scriptwriters — but characters?

And not the most important ones too.

Stop Writing The Script

One famous British comedian wrote a letter to his 16-year-old self in the book Letters To My Younger Self and said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously. If life was a play, you’d be a mumbling character who shows up in act seven.”

When we define ourselves on the page too much, we’re essentially writing a script. As a result, we assume that everything that’s happening in our lives is:

  1. About us.
  2. Terribly, monumentally important.

We outline how we want ourselves to behave and how we want other people to see us and how the world should work.

And when the world doesn’t go according to our script — which, let’s agree, it never does — we call this “a disappointment.”

Here’s an example.

You find a person you like on Tinder, swipe right, and propose you meet for coffee. You thought it was a guy who likes sushi and jazz. You show up and see that it’s, in fact, a lesbian girl who likes to drink too much of Matcha Chai latte and, from the bottom of her heart, hates jazz. You’re disappointed. But you shouldn’t — nobody guaranteed that the script you wrote in the head was true.

We do the same things to ourselves all the time.

We tell ourselves we’re supposed to be millionaires by 25 or some other arbitrary age; we tell ourselves we’ll soon be making it — but five years in, we’re still not making it.

We get sad. Some of us get depressed. Why? Because we wrote a script — and the world didn’t go according to it.

Now, who’s insane?


The Key To Happiness

The key to happiness is not to set ourselves Big Hairy Audacious Goals and achieve them one by one.

It’s to avoid feeling bad about ourselves and do something that matters.

And we can only do that by refusing to write the script, listening to what the world tells us, and doing things — instead of planning for them.

  • Don’t be a writer — write.
  • Don’t be an entrepreneur — build a business.
  • Don’t be a podcaster — interview 50 people.
  • Don’t be a musician — sing, play, perform.

Stop writing the script. Do — not think, talk, or write. Let your results and press define you.

While you focus on the work that matters to you.

If you’re still unsure what that sort of work is, let me give you some guidance by signing off with another thought-provoking quote from Steven Pinker. Too often than not, we’re lured into the wrong professions by chasing money, status, and fame alone.

Steven says:

“Think about what you will add to the world. Some lucrative professions (e.g., ultra-high-tech finance) are dubious applications of human brainpower.”

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