What to do versus who to be

A close friend emailed Hunter Thompson’s letter “On Finding Your Purpose.” I’d read this a while back but I’d forgotten about it. And, it resonated very deeply this time around. The part that resonated was his distinction between what we want to do and who we want to be. I picked out my favorite notes below.

As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors — but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.

Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know — is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

I feel I’ve been stumbling at the fringes of this idea in my years writing here without ever explaining it with such clarity. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The conventional approach to life is to focus on what we want to do. We, then, shape who we want to be in accordance. If we end up in a job that requires us to work 90 hours a week, so be it. We’ll give up those dreams of valuing health or family. It assumes no thought or intention.

Instead, decide who we want to be and seek to find a career that conforms. This is hard. Who knows what we want to be?

It turns out we don’t really know what we want to do either. For the most part, we just start with an unconscious hypothesis and keep moving forward. The only difference is that we seem to be following millions of others who are doing the same thing. It is easier.

And, as always, let’s not confuse easier with better.

5 thoughts on “What to do versus who to be

  1. I think in America much of this confusion is in who it is expressed in language since we are young. When I was in school I was knew asked “who do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s always asked what do you want to do when you grow up?” We also are always asking people “So what do you do?” I’ve never been asked “So, Marvin, who are you?”

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  2. How I’m understanding this:
    The conventional dialogue says
    “I want to be a fireman. To do that I need to be strong and good at waking up early. Let’s start training.”
    Where as this proposed alternative dialogue goes
    “I want to be nice and smart. Hmn, what career enables that? Maybe I should be a school teacher.”

    Am I getting this right?

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