Finding Your True Identity

Arthur Brooks teaches at Harvard Business School and is a social scientist and a prolific author. He is writing a series of articles in The Atlantic on “How to Build a Life.” His most recent article is quite fascinating and is titled, “’Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy.” He opens the article with these words:

The pursuit of achievement distracts from the deeply ordinary activities and relationships that make life meaningful.

 Imagine reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Booze.” You would likely expect a depressing story about a person in a downward alcoholic spiral. Now imagine instead reading a story titled “The Relentless Pursuit of Success.” That would be an inspiring story, wouldn’t it?

Maybe—but maybe not. It might well be the story of someone whose never-ending quest for more and more success leaves them perpetually unsatisfied and incapable of happiness.

Though it isn’t a conventional medical addiction, for many people success has addictive properties. To a certain extent, I mean that literally—praise stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is implicated in all addictive behaviors. (This is basically how social media keeps people hooked: Users get a dopamine hit from the “likes” generated by a post, keeping them coming back again and again, hour after miserable hour.)

But success also resembles addiction in its effect on human relationships. People sacrifice their links with others for their true love, success. They travel for business on anniversaries; they miss Little League games and recitals while working long hours. Some forgo marriage for their careers—earning the appellation of being “married to their work”—even though a good relationship is more satisfying than any job.

I do believe Brooks is onto something in that there is clearly an addiction involved. I see it more as an addiction to the approval of others because achievement and performance is where many get their sense of worth and identity. In fact I think it is accurate to suggest this is how most of us have developed our identities.

What we end up doing is that we find our identity, our sense of self-worth from people outside ourselves. This includes people in our communities, people in our sphere of influence, people who are watching us. As David Brook says in his book, The Road to Character, when people attempt to establish their self-worth by winning the approval of others; “It makes them utterly dependent on the gossipy unstable crowd that surrounds them.”

So, we allow these people to participate in the shaping of our identities. Once we conform to the standards of this audience, we let them determine how we are doing in our assigned roles and we let them define how successful we are in life. Unconsciously we allow this audience to make the final verdict on the value of our lives. As time goes by we begin to realize however, that the verdict is not “in” because our performance is never “over.” No matter how much applause we received yesterday, we can’t be certain we will receive it again tomorrow.

What we are seeing today is that people who have always experienced success find themselves overwhelmed in the wake of this pandemic. Many people for the very first time are realizing that the applause of their audience is fleeting. And they don’t know what to do about it.

So how are we delivered from this addiction to the approval of others? Brooks suggests that it is through faith, family and friendship. I however would say that faith is the true foundation.

I heard a lecture by author Donald Miller given to a sizeable group of students at Harvard. He was addressing some of the same issues we have been considering. Here’s what he said:

Human beings are wired so that they need some great authority outside themselves to tell him or her who they really are. But for many people that voice is not there, because their lives are not oriented towards God. When that is the case, the very first thing that will happen in their lives will be to question their worth and their value. Does my life really matter? And this is what causes us to begin to hide ourselves from others.

Miller goes on to say that he recognizes this to be true in the lives of all people, including important people and famous celebrities. Once he saw how we no longer look to God to give us our worth and identity, he understood why we are so addicted to the approval of others and being seen as successful in their eyes.

Most of my adult life, I have been fascinated by the writing of C. S. Lewis. But in the past few years I have read several books about his personal life, and I have to say I am even more impressed with the quality of his life. It is worthwhile to consider the life of a man who was truly grounded. He was amazing.

“Lewis understood his true identity,” says Dr. Armand Nicholi Jr., a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, who has studied Lewis’ life extensively. In his book, The Question of God, Nicholi reveals why C.S. Lewis had such a healthy identity. Lewis had been an atheist for more than thirty years, then became a theist, and then a Christian. Nicholi tells us:

As Lewis began to read the Old and New Testaments seriously, he noted a new method of establishing his identity, of coming to terms with his “real personality.” This process, Lewis writes, involves losing yourself in your relationship to the Creator. “Until you have given yourself up to Him,” Lewis writes, “you will not have a real self.”

Therein lies the solution to finding our true identity. What Lewis recognized is that if you are really going to find your life and live it to the fullest, you have to give up your life and surrender it to Christ.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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