Become who you are

This conjuration is not a rallying cry from a self-help guru but a quote I came across recently, penned by Friedrich Nietzsche.

What does it mean ?

To understand the aphorism, it seems useful to draw a distinction between deciding who you are and choosing to become who you are.

Deciding means to make a choice based on a reason. In the verb decide, there is the Latin root which means ‘to slay’ – just as in the words homicide and suicide. Every decision implies a renunciation. For every Yes, there is also a No.
If I decide on this course of action, it is because of this reason, which I consider to be the right reason. The other reasons I considered, but rejected , then become the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, when I choose, I do so for no particular reason. If I chose say vanilla over chocolate ice cream, I do so for no other reason than that is what I feel like at the moment. I don’t feel I need to justify my choice. I chose, I did not take a decision.

Back to Nietzsche’s admonition, “Become who you are”.

When we decide to be who we are, our decision is based on reasons we can put forward and articulate. Often historical reason – we are this today because of that which happened yesterday. We occupy an important position for example, because we received a higher education and are very good at what we do. I am an achiever. You are a born leader because …. (fill in the blank). Any reason we put forward is incontrovertible and that’s the way it is.

On the other hand, if I choose to “become who I am”, I do so for no other reason than that is how I choose to live my life. I do not feel tied down because of this or that reason, I am more concerned about what works for me. About what makes me feel I am leading a fulfilled life, about what gives my life meaning. Rather than a still portrait, it is a work in progress, never really achieved, always looking to go further and further on.

Life after all is just a story. The question is: who is writing the story ? And what is it about : a cast decision or an on-going choice to just keep trying to “become who you are”?

When All Is Said And Done

A few years ago, I was visiting a dying friend in hospital. He knew his days were counted, what with all those tubes and wires coming out of him. But he had that tranquil, peaceful and serene look of someone who appeared at peace with himself, ready to shuffle off his mortal coil and slip back to the other side.

We were having a nice chat together, when eventually I came around to putting the question I wanted to put to him:

– “Can I ask you something, from someone standing by the bed to someone lying in it ?”

– “What your really mean is from a living person to a dying person?” he chuckled. “Please do so”.

– “Thank you. I am curious about something. From where you are right now, looking back on your life, do you have any regrets about anything?”

The question seemed to make him withdraw. He turned his head away and remained silent for a long while, with his eyes closed. He eventually turned his head back, and said with a clear voice:

– “If I have one regret, it is about not doing what I always wanted to do in life. And that was to live in the mountains and become a guide. I let my father talk me out of it”.
He paused, then added:

– “Well that is not quite true. My father was against, yes that’s true. But that was not the reason for my not doing it. I did not follow the difficult and winding path up to the mountains, because I did not have the guts to do it. Not because my father prevented me from doing it.
Now that I am about to take my leave from this blessed life, and looking back on things, my only regret was not following my gut instinct. Don’t get me wrong. I consider I had a good life. I got married to someone I loved all my life, we raised a family, we lived a comfortable life. But I always wondered how different it would have been if I had followed my dream. Throughout my life, I always felt this frustration in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes even anger. Anger at others for getting in the way, but actually anger at myself for not having had the guts to follow my dream. I never really experienced fulfilment, deep seated fulfilment, as I once saw in a shepherd I came across when hiking in the mountains one summer.
Want some advice ? Well even if you don’t, here it is anyway: don’t make the same mistake! If you have a dream, regardless of circumstances and what not, just bloody well follow that dream. It will lead you to where so few are willing to venture: enjoying life for what you made of it and to hell with the rest!”

He died a couple of weeks later. However his exclamation still resonates with me today.

It seems as if dying people, if asked, very seldom regret what they did do and could have done differently. Rather if they have any regret, it’s rather about what they did not do but always wanted to do.

So why wait for the final curtain call to regret not playing out our best hand ?

The Three Folded Fingers

Let’s face it: today’s leadership skills require collaboration and influence, rather than the old authoritarian approach of command and control. The days when the top viewed itself as cause and the rest of the world as merely effect are rapidly going. Throwing your weight around might work for a while, but in the end you just undermine and eventually forfeit your real authority. Hubris is but a hair’s breadth from self assurance, and nemesis stands right behind it.

I often come across senior managers who vent their deep frustration towards a subordinate for not complying with their demand to do something differently or to change their ways ? This may, at times, lead to irritation or even anger.

Let’s take the example of a CEO, discussing with his CFO the idea of changing the company’s accounting practice, ahead of publishing their next results. The CEO believes this would appropriately reflect how they now sell a certain product, following a change in market circumstances. The CFO, on the other hand, questions the advisability of such a move, suggesting they wait and see if the change is a lasting one or just a passing fad. Of course he can see how the change would benefit the bottom line. But he feels something of this nature should be announced to the markets in advance, to avoid surprising the analysts and being suspected of acting in an opportunistic way to flatter the company’s results.

What started out as a perfectly calm exchange of views, gradually takes a turn for the worst, with both sides quickly digging in their heels. The tone rises and soon the CEO is pointing his finger at his CFO, starting to feel angry at him for appearing to resist what seems to him a perfectly legitimate move.

What happened ? Well if you were a fly on the wall, you would notice that at a certain point in the conversation, one side started doubting the intentions of the other. Rather than trying to figure out what the CFO’s true concerns were and how best to address these, the CEO started ‘interpreting’ his intentions, suspecting malicious intent on his part.

When you sense the discussion is getting out of control, there is a way to regain your senses, to find a way back into the conversation. And it is this. Every time we catch ourselves pointing a finger, like a cocked pistol, at someone, as if threatening them for not yielding to our argument, we should always look at the three silently folded fingers pointing back at us, seemingly asking: “And how is my action contributing to finding a way forward ? What could I do differently to achieve my objective ?”