How to work out who you really are

My talk from TEDxUQ, March 2021:

The script:

“Who am I?”

It’s one of the most important question of our lives.  We all want to know who we are because it’s a key part of living with ourselves, accepting ourselves, loving ourselves. And when we see a part of us we don’t like, it’s also part of improving ourselves.  If know who we are, we can start plotting a course towards who we want to be. 

So who are you?  It’s a tricky question and I don’t want to put you on the spot, but we’re going to work it out right now, together.  I have a tool to help us and I can make three promises about this tool – one, it takes less than 5 minutes.  Two, you might actually use it.  Three, you’ve brought it with you today. 

This tool starts with something visual.  We talk about self-discovery as a journey so let’s run with that. 

Imagine all us are taking a ride on a train.

Like every train, there are multiple stops along the way, but this is a very special train because wherever you choose to get off, you’ll know exactly who you are – you’ll have a complete answer.   As you take your seats, you notice this train is absolutely full because, let’s face it, that’s a pretty good deal right?!  A few minutes til departure, you’re all buzzing, excited about what you hope to find.  In fact, everyone’s so excited that nobody notices a secret about this train. Sitting at the very back of your carriage, is a wise old man – a mystical type, unkempt white hair, and face crumpled like yesterday’s newspaper.  His eyes are closed, asleep before the journey even starts.  Nobody knows much about him but rumour has it he rides the train every week looking for the same thing you are and rumour has it he always finds it.

Okay so let’s get going.  Whistle blows, the train roars into motion.  We’re chugging through the countryside and at the first stop, the station name reads “Words“. Here, we find our identity by just pronouncing and publicising who we are.  Let’s say you think you’re generous.  Well here we say “Everyone, I am a generous person.”  And who hasn’t been here?  All you need to do is convince your friends or even strangers of who you are and that’s enough.  A few influencers try to convince you to get off the train.  But you think of that wise old man.  You look to the back of the carriage and he opens one eye, peers out at the station name, and then settles back to sleep.  This isn’t his station.  The whistle blows and the train returns to a steady motion.

Next, we come to a second station called “Plans“.  At this station, we say things like “I will be a generous person” and “I wish and hope for a generous world”.  This is the intentions station, the dreaming station.  Here, we can also try “I would be a generous person if” and add a qualifier.  I would be generous “if I had more money, if I had more time, if my boss wasn’t such a jerk, if things get better for me.”  A few more people will get off at this station and you think about it too.    The wise old man?  Well, he’s at least awake for this station, but still motionless in his chair.  This isn’t his station.  The whistle blows, and the train bursts into motion.

On it rolls and soon you see the sign for third station called “Feelings“.  Here, we say things like “Deep down, I am generous” or “I can feel my generous self” or “I havea generous soul.”  The outside world doesn’t matter.  Other people’s views and impressions are just distractions.  Through deep contemplation, we eventually access who we really are.  This is a beautiful, romantic, sincere station.  The wise old man is stirring from his seat, rising, smiling, peering out the window the beauty of it all… and then relaxes back into his seat.  This isn’t his station.  It may well be yours and like the first and second station, no judgment if you get off here.  But decide quickly because the train is spluttering back to life and ready to leave the third station behind.

Because there is a fourth and final station.    There’s nothing flashy about this one.  Imagine Central Station at 8pm at night.  Except there’s one big difference – standing right in front of you, on the platform, there is a giant black wall with white text scrolling scrolling, scrolling.  At first you think it might just be the train timetables, but then some of the text has your name on it.  Dates, times, places, people all strangely familiar. “What is this?” you say out loud.  “Your last seven days”, says the old man suddenly with you on the platform. “From breakfast on day one to bedtime on day seven.  This knows your every phone call, every meeting, every message, smile and wink and frown.  “This is the truth of who you are”, he explains, “If can’t find it on here, it doesn’t exist.”

The idea is simple: You are what you do. Not what you say you do. Not what you plan to do. Not what feel you do, but what you do.  And each time we get off the train early, we deny ourselves the real answer of who we are.  Whatever you’re looking for – Generosity, discipline, leadership – has to show its face here in the real world.

The first part of the tool is the train which transports you through three false leads.  The second part is black wall, your last seven days, which takes less than 5 minutes to check and you’ve brought it with you today:

Your outbox will tell you more about who you are than your Instagram.  Going to “recent calls” can be more enlightening than going to a rain forest retreat.  Don’t judge yourself or make excuses, just accept the answer for what it is.   At the first stop, I just declared “I am generous” and maybe even tweeted it.  At the second stop I said “I will be generous” and maybe even make vague plans to do it.  At the third stop, I said “I feel generous” and maybe even genuinely believe it.  But to stop at the fourth stop, is to unlock your phone and show yourself the truth.

We should relish seeing the truth, no matter how scary.  The last seven days will show missed calls we should have taken, messages we shouldn’t have sent, and reminders we were so excited to set and so quick to ignore.  But there among it all, we’ll see a tiny bit of hope.  We’ll see a supportive friend.  A community leader.  An advocate for a better, greener tomorrow.  What could be more beautiful than a tiny bit of who we want to be buried among who we already are?

And the more you ride that train, the more of this you’ll see.  Before you know it, seven days turns into seven weeks, as the months, years and decades turn into habits, character and legacy.

Hi! I’m a dispute resolution lawyer and the former CEO of Out for Australia, an Australian LGBTIQ+ student mentoring non-profit. Feel free to add me on LinkedIn and let’s talk.

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