There’s a lot I want to share with you. I have recently finished Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings’ No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, and Wahbie Long’s Nation on The Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind, both of which are immensely valuable.
However, last week’s letter – Life is Not a Solo Flight – generated a lot of comments – thank you for the messages. I do enjoy the dialogue that follow from these letters. Most of you prefer communicating directly with me, but if you do ever feel like doing the social media thing, I posted last week’s letter here.
Many of you observed that knowing ‘my story’ is not a straightforward process. The questions came, ‘How do I tell my story?’ and behind that was another question, ‘How do I get to know my story, the story of who I am?’ And so, that is where we’re going today.
Rainier Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet are viewed by many as a guide to life and creativity. They are a remarkable series of letters that he wrote to, yes, a young, aspiring poet.
In his first letter, after having received copies of the young man’s poems which failed to impress him, Rilke says this, “my dear sir, I know of no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without enquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from the outside”.
Read it again. Isn’t it inspiring? I have returned to these letters a number of times; I always leave with something.
Yet, over the years I have to come to leave this particular paragraph with discomfort, a discomfort that has steadily grown to the realization, that I never really knew – at least not in the sense that Rilke describes – what answer lies in the depths of my life as to who I should be. Of course, Rilke gave his advice in the narrow context of pursuing a life as a poet, and there I know, without a doubt, that’s not me.
However, Rilke’s formulation is powerful, and the principle gets applied widely, in a way that insists that knowing ourselves means that we can discover a clean, clear truth that says, ‘this is me’.
We feel obligated to know ourselves in this narrow way and be able to declare it to the world. Some of us can do that, from time to time I meet clients who have always known what they are called to do. It is beautiful to encounter.
However, many of us, carry doubt because we simply can’t access it in that way, in the deeps of our lives. Our deeps seem a bit murky. Each time we visit them, we seem to find something else. And so, the idea of who am I, and what should I do in this life, becomes seemingly unobtainable, and we drift along, frustrated and resigned.
I have a humbler formulation for knowing oneself. It rests on the premise that what you do, what you’re drawn to, what you dream about, these are the clues to who you are.
Indeed, Rilke says to the young poet, “ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, must I write?” It is these acts of doing, that give us clues to who we are.
It starts with remembering. Spend time remembering. Scan through your life. What stands out? Who stands out? As these memories start to emerge, what patterns can you feel in your remembering? What threads, what connections are there between your memories? What themes are there?
It will come as no surprise to you that many of my memories are of books. My mother taking us to our local, tiny, two-roomed library. The smell of old books and dust. Sitting on my Aunt Joan’s Persian Rug in the sun, the smell of hot carpet somehow comforting, surrounded by book-shaped gifts. The thrill, one Christmas morning of opening a block of a gift, to discover that my mother had found me Lord of the Rings – a book that had felt so distant, so unattainable in the town that we lived in. She had found it with the help of Mr. Des Ford – the courteous, gentle, owner of a dimly-lit book shop that smelt of wood polish and was filled with possibility.
Pick a year or a period. Spend time there, follow the memories. See which ones you’re drawn to, see which memories reappear, take note if there are moments that aren’t part of how you tell the story of yourself.
Keep asking yourself, “What else is there? Who else was there?”
Go deeper. Be curious. Be gentle. Our memories are shaped by the stories we use to define our current life, but those stories aren’t entirely our own. So, spend time in the memories, follow one to the next. Perhaps you’ll realise that the story you tell yourself doesn’t tell the fullness of you, you’ll see that you are more than you thought. You can act from that richer place.
Often, I am gently reminding my clients of parts of their story that they neglect to tell. Their narrative is partial, it is often someone else’s voice, it’s not their voice. Yet, as they remember and integrate more memories, they discover their voice. They’re able to say, tentatively at first, and then slowly with confidence ‘this is who I am’ and it is true because their voice is simply expressing what they do and have done.
What are you drawn to? What do you do easily? This is who you are. What drains your energy? No matter how very, very important those things are labelled, find someone else to do them. You’ll discover that some people relish doing that, it is who they are, it is where they are strong.
If you’re feeling adventurous, ask people who you trust, from different parts of your life, what they think of when they think of you.
So rather than going to the depths of your soul to find a singular truth and a defining purpose, knowing your story can be a humbler undertaking. It can be knowing what you instinctually do, what you’re easily good at, what you’ve always been drawn to. It can be remembering parts of your history that you don’t always occupy, and in owning those moments more consciously, more intentionally, you start to tell the story of who you are slightly differently, in a way that has new possibilities.
On the other end of the knowing one’s self spectrum is the question of ‘how do I make a living with this?’ Is this a career, it is my purpose? And yet, that is as imprisoning as the search for the unicorn hiding in the bottom-left corner of one’s heart. I often see that question triggering an existential panic, making people feel that they need to abandon their careers.
It is far more productive to ask a gentler question, “If this is who I am, how do I bring it into my life?”
I am consistently inspired by the story of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. The Vogels worked, respectively, as a librarian and a postal clerk. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Over years of buying art, they amassed an important collection of 5,000 pieces that eventually they donated to the National Gallery.
Early on in their marriage, they went to painting classes. That didn’t resonate with them. They decided to collect instead. They were art lovers; it became a core pillar in their marriage with every Saturday spent in galleries. They never turned it into a career or a business, it was a way of life.
With their humble incomes, they cultivated relationships directly with artists, often buying them before they become represented by galleries. They didn’t have trust funds, or financial sector bonuses, to fuel their passion, but they found a way.
As you deepen your knowledge of your story, try small experiments to live that way a little more intentionally. This week, a friend told me how she’d realized that a core principle in her family’s life was kindness. She has resolved to lead her life with kindness, to find a way to inject kindness into each moment. What might you try?
Included in last week’s letter was a reflection on those that we’ve lost over this time. Some of you wrote to me to tell me of your pain, and I appreciated your vulnerability.
Your messages took me to this moment in Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room, where he receives a letter telling him of the death of a friend (who might have become a lover had they been brave enough). He reflects that “Things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory”.
Indeed, “things happen only once and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory”. In these moments of profound loss, I wish you memories of joy and togetherness. It may be all we have in that moment, but we do have them.
I hope that as this week unfolds, you remember that which makes you who you are. I hope that as this week unfolds, you are present to your world, be sure to remember the moments of joy, that particular moment happens only once. Enjoy it for all that it is.
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PS: If you’d like to know what it is like to work with me, this is what some of my clients have said about their experience working with me.