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Stop Putting Yourself In a Box

As a professional programmer, and as someone who spent 6 years getting a BS/MS in Computer Science, I sometimes can't resist putting myself in the programmer box, despite it not reflecting who I truly am and what I want.

Disclaimers

  • I've been making an effort to make my writing more concise and more pleasant to read. Hopefully, you'll notice that change starting with this article.
  • This article may only make sense to those that have struggled with obsessiveness, perfectionism, or otherwise feeling like you've had to live up to lofty expectations. If you've been easy-going for your entire life, you may simply counter this post with "bro, just relax and do you". But in this post, I attempt to shed light on why that's not as simple it seems for some.

Thinking Big

When someone is young (or young at heart), they tend to think less pragmatically. Impulsivity and emotional instability tend to dominate their decision making processes.

There are countless studies that support this, both anecdotally and anatomically (i.e. young people's brains are actually physically different than older people's brains). While the brain is very poorly understood relative to the rest of our bodies, the health and science community is in large agreement that younger people tend to think more idealistically and irrationally than older people.

This can be a terrible thing, and also a wonderful thing. It's terrible because younger people tend to make decisions in a sub-optimal way. When making decisions, they may lack the necessary information and experience to make sound judgements. They may also let their emotions override the need for objectivity. Both scenarios can lead to poor decision making.

But on the flip side, thinking less pragmatically can also be a beautiful thing because it frees the individual to ponder the truly outrageous and the utterly impractical. Consider the following questions:

  • What if we put human beings on a machine and sent them to the moon?
  • What if we connected all of the computers together to create one giant network?
  • What if we poisoned someone's cells with radiation to actually help their bodies overcome a disease?
  • What if we put Mario, Sonic, and Cloud in a fighting game?

These questions may seem tame and obvious to readers in 2021, but at certain points in history, these questions were treated with derision and intense skepticism. It took a number of forward-thinking individuals, ones who couldn't afford to limit their own wild imaginations, to make these hypothetical scenarios a reality.

While impulsive and irrational to some, "thinking big" is a net good to society, leading to innovation and improvement. To allegedly quote Henry Ford of the Ford automobile company, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

Henry Ford is an example of someone who didn't let skeptics and naysayers dissuade him from thinking big. As a result, human civilization had changed dramatically (arguably for the better). Image Credit

In short, we need individuals like Ford to push the boundaries of what we think is possible. I'd argue that and being naive and impulsive is, in fact, a necessary requirement to change the world.

But before I go any further, I don't mean to suggest that "thinking big" is exclusive to young people. Let me clarify that one can do great things at any age. But I think many would agree that young people tend to be less aware of their own limitations. They simply have less failures and less experience to draw upon when setting goals for themselves, and I'd argue that being foolish and a little irrational can help one push through skepticism, whether that comes from oneself or others.

I Wanna Be the Very Best

Therefore, it's often at a young age that one decides, "I'm going to be the best at something", or "I'm going to create something revolutionary", or "I'm going to change the world". It's no coincidence that many toys, TV shows, and videogames attempt to capitalize on this fantasy of being the best, or being someone that everyone else looks up to.

Like many TV shows marketed to children and teens, Pokemon focuses on a pokemon trainer who simply "wants to be the very best, like no one ever was".

This decision to pursue greatness often is often founded up a natural prowess or interest in a skill. This might include a music teacher urging one of their students to try out for the state's music ensemble, or it might include a local sports coach making one of their players captain of the team. It could even include an elementary school teacher making an offhand comment to a parent about a child's "natural gift" for math.

It's these little moments that tend to set an aspiration for greatness into motion. Actually, I'd argue that we can't help it: humans are naturally social and competitive. Whether it's motivated by prestige, fame, money, or simply self-satisfaction, it's both a curse and a blessing that most people are naturally driven to succeed and improve. Some are obviously more motivated than others (gender, upbringing, and wealth all factor into this), but I'd argue that most of us have stopped to consider the question, "Do I have what it takes to be the best?"

On the surface, setting a goal for oneself to "be the best" or "change the world" is a healthy thing to do. Mapping out a goal, working hard at it, and either succeeding or failing is an important part of growing up. Through this process, one learns about their own strengths and weaknesses, and they gain valuable insight and experience that can be applied to future struggles.

But this drive to "be the best" can also have drastic effects on one's personality and self-perception.

The Idealized Self

During our struggles to be the best at something, we tend to make adaptations to help us achieve this goal. This usually means dedicating more time to practice, rehearse, or study. As a result, it also means making sacrifices so that more time and energy can be allocated towards that specific goal. This is necessary because there's only 24 hours in a day. Most disciplines require one's primary focus and attention in order to truly master it. In that sense, in pursuit of greatness, one cannot afford to take too many detours.

As a result, aspiring for greatness usually means losing a part of oneself. As an exmaple, this could mean that an academic spends less time playing sports so that they can devote more time to their research.

Additionally, in pursuit of greatness, many people (again, due to our inherent thirst for socialization and competition) often analyze other "great" people and attempt to mimic them.

And as outsiders, what do we see when we analyze the professionals, the masters, and the inspired? We see someone who's hard-working, passionate, and highly skilled. Someone who's devotion to their craft takes precedence over all other things. We see famous computer programmers as "analytical" and "brilliant". We see musicians as "artsy, aloof, and "passionate". We see famous athletes as "focused, intense, and hard-working".

Don't these descriptors sound romantic? Shouldn't everyone want to be described in a such a way?

Therefore, whether or not they're accurate, many people tend to force these preconceived notions upon themselves in order to mirror other "great" people. This can happen either consciously or subconsciously.

By doing so, they have put themselves in a "box" that neatly dictates who they should be and what they should be interested in. In other words, they have created for themselves an "idealized self".

By "idealized self", I mean a perception of oneself that aligns with who we want to be. It's a compartmentalized aspect of our personality and consciousness that drives us to change who we are.

The idealized self can lead us into thinking that we're someone that we're not. For example, an aspiring athlete might ask themselves, "would the greatest soccer player in the world take this night off to watch some silly japanese cartoons, or would they spend this night training and improving?" Under the guise of actual desire, the idealized self is driven by internal and external expectations of greatness, and individuals may feel compelled to forgo interests and activities that they enjoy because of it.

The Actual Self

Pursuing a realization of the idealized self isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's often required to achieve greatness. Very, very few people end up being the best at something without hard work, intense focus, and countless sacrifices.

But left unchecked, this pursuit can lead to anxiety, anguish, and a sense of regret. This can occur when this idealized self differs greatly from the "actual self", which is one's raw and unbiased perception of oneself. In contrast to the perfect version of oneself that one aspires to be (i.e. the idealized self), the actual self is free from the pressures of who we think we should be.

Instead, the actual self is a representation of who we are and what we want at this very moment. I'd argue that it sits somewhere between instinct and rational consciousness. It's represented by the raw thrill one feels when engaging in something truly enjoyable, and also the cold indifference when engaging in something that's of no interest to them. It's a truer reflection of one's own wants, needs, and desires than the idealized self since the idealized self is often influenced by both internal and external factors (i.e. peer pressure, social expectations, etc).

Not dissimilar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I'd argue that our instincts influence what we find enjoyable, which in turn influences how we want to consciously channel our interests into something greater than what they are (i.e. being the best, changing the world, etc).

Ideal Versus Actual

As stated above, pursuing an idealized version of oneself in spite of their actual self isn't inherently an unhealthy decision. But when the idealized self and actual self are completely out of sync, individuals tend to struggle. To illustrate this, consider someone (i.e. myself) who had dreams of becoming a great musician. They had natural talent as a child, and had been encouraged by friends and family to take their skills to the next level.

But as obsessiveness began to take hold, the pressure to "be the best" began to overshadow everything else. Throughout the countless hours of practicing and performing, music stopped being enjoyable. But the idealized self had become so dominant that they had failed to realize this, leading to countless wasted hours of boredom, anxiety, and dread.

Therefore, for individuals like me, a divergent idealized self can have a two-fold negative effect: it drives an individual to engage in activities that they no longer enjoy, and it also comes at the expense of their other wants and desires. In other words, it's a massive waste of time and energy.

Some may be able to bring their idealized self and actual self back into sync fairly easily, but for others, it can be very difficult: for example, it took me ~15 years to realize that I didn't care enough about music to turn my dreams of greatness into reality. I had put myself into an idealized "musician" box and had accepted all that that entails. But foolishly, I never stopped to question if that box truly represented who I was, what I wanted, and what my strengths were.

Bringing the Idealized and Actual Selfs Back into Sync

To get philosophical, I'd argue that it's not possible to keep our idealized self and actual self in sync 100% of the time. Our perception of ourselves is influenced by countless factors, and there's no such thing as a "constant" actual self: we are always changing and adapting to our environment, and our needs, wants, and interests aren't static.

For example, I may truly enjoy something today, but for a variety of reasons, I may not enjoy it tomorrow. But the simple act of recognizing my enjoyment of something and being conscious of of it can create a narrative in my head that influences how I perceive myself. "I am a person that likes XYZ" is a powerful concept that becomes difficult to shake, even when it no longer holds true. Once we've internalized thought like that, it becomes another "box" that we're put ourselves in. Human beings love to categorize and label. It's a cost-saving mechanism that, for better or worse, helps us make decisions quickly about who someone is without having all of the information. But as a result, it's very easy to apply the categorization to ourselves, even when it isn't accurate.

Consider the diagram below, which outlines how an interest in something progresses over time.

The actual self consists of things that you are genuinely interested in

I'd argue that this cyclical graph is something most people can identify with: they take up an interest in something, and soon after, they internalize that fact (i.e. "I am a person who likes XYZ" or "I'm a XYZ-er"). But over time, as their interest wanes or they experience setbacks, they'll be forced to re-evaluate their assumptions about this interest. At that point, that interest will either be affirmed or denied, and then the cycle continues.

But many people like myself fall into the trap of "putting themselves into a box" by ignoring their actual self and ignoring any signs that they don't quite conform to the box (i.e. me continuing to participate in music competitions for years despite having no genuine interest to improve). For some, their idealized self becomes so dominant and loud that they simply oscillate between the two boxes on the right, never realizing that their time and energy could be better spent elsewhere.

So, how can one ensure that their idealized self and actual self are in sync? How can we cut through the stress and pressures of our own expectations (or the expectations of others) to uncover what we truly want?

The only way to get reasonably close to knowing what you truly want in life is to ask yourself. Self-reflection is key, and I'd argue that it's beneficial to do it as much as possible. It took me ~15 years or so to realize that I did not have the skill or passion to become a great musician. While that's a lot of wasted time and effort, I'm glad that I finally realized it. As they say, "the best time to do something is 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

In practical terms, self-reflection simply means talking to yourself. More importantly, it means actually listening to what you have to say. This could mean having conversations with yourself while driving. Or writing down your thoughts in a journal (or blog!). It could even be talking with a trusted friend or family member. Self-reflection can be achieved in a variety of ways as long as you pay attention to the things that you say or write.

Unfortunately, it's very easy to ignore your own wants and desires when there are so many distractions in the modern world: youtube, podcasts, social media, texting, and emails all get in the way of us talking and listening to ourselves. In particular, I think that heavy usage of social media can have terrible effects on people, giving them harmful ideas about who they should be instead of being happy with who you are.

But by stepping away from the keyboard, or putting the phone down, or talking a walk by yourself every once in a while, you'll become more receptive and responsive to your actual self, which will lead to a happier existence.

Summary

With all of that said, would I recommend that absolutely no one pursue their lofty aspirations of greatness, and instead accept mediocrity as a consistent, normal part of life? Of course not. As I mentioned above, it's these same lofty aspirations that propel the human race forward. Without dreamers and big thinkers, I'd argue that our collective society would be much worse off.

But I would recommend staying in tune with yourself as much as possible. If you have a genuine passion for music, sports, or academics, and wish to change the world, then I'd whole-heartedly encourage you to pursue that dream. But at the same time, I'd recommend asking yourself frequently along your journey, "Am I having fun? Is this something that I truly enjoy doing?". Try to avoid putting yourself in a box, which puts pressure on you to conform to something that you aren't, and instead let yourself be free to explore outside of that box. Keep your idealized self in check and try to realize smaller, more reachable goals.

By being honest with yourself, you'll either give yourself motivation to press onwards, or you'll allow yourself the humility and grace to step down and pursue something else that makes you happy. Who knows? You might discover something about yourself that you didn't know before, something else that could be channeled to change the world for the better.



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