On The Importance of Losing Oneself

A friend sent me and a couple other friends an email. Attached was a link to a David Brooks piece in the New York Times, which articulated quite well one of the things I’ve been struggling with lately: how to reconcile the fact that my grandparents (on both sides) appear to be extremely high-functioning adults, that they had remarkably free and open childhoods, that they got married before they were twenty-five. That they tied themselves down so fast. And then there are my parents, who are, by and large, also very much functional adults, and that their lives followed this same freedom–>obligation arc as my grandparents’. And then there’s me, and my generation, one that’s been so tightly regulated and supervised, one that enters the so-called “real world” of what used to be called adulthood and begins a prolonged echo of what used to be adolescence. We see the progression as one from {obligation, supervision, constraint} => Freedom.

And so I’m getting a little antsy, with all this freedom. And I’m grappling with how I can call myself an adult when by my age my mom’s mom was a new mom, or when my dad’s mom finished medical school when she was 23.

And here I am asking myself whether I want to get plastered on my 21st birthday, in 18 days.

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Here’s the last few sentences from the article:

Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

One of my friends who was cc’d on the email, I’ll call him D—- (the number of dashes varies), said he honestly does not get this last part. “Somebody help me here?” And so I took a crack at it, which can be found below.

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I think what was meant by “The purpose in life is not to find yourself but to lose yourself” was rather simple. Think about it for a second.

Almost every waking moment of your existence is self-focused, whether we’d like to think of it as self-focused or not. You’d know, as an entrepreneur, that your number one obligation is not building a fantastic and beautiful product for the sake of building such a product, your goal is to do so for to the benefit of your shareholders. Because you are a shareholder, all your activity is still self-focused.

Let’s get concrete.

I don’t know what your relationship status is right now, but let’s pretend you’re single. And you run into a nice, cute girl. Chances are that one of the last things you’re thinking about when you talk to her is, “D—, what can you give to this girl?” In all likelihood, you’re thinking about all the things you could do together, the things you can do with and to each other, but rarely will you think about what you could do “for” her.

Your most creative moments, most meaningful moments, those moments which you’ll remember for a long time are not moments of personal accomplishment or triumph–those come and go every day in big ways and small ways. No, if you think about it, the times at which you feel most powerful, most triumphant, come when you lose awareness of yourself and your surroundings and you channel your mental energies directly into the task at hand. And whether that task is originating an awesome business model, coding a particularly brilliant script, admiring the view from some high vantage point, or engaging in some emotionally intense naughtiness with your significant other, these moments’ significance come from their rarity. Because it’s not very often that one gets to give the whole of oneself over to something.

Letting go of the self, stripping yourself bare of labels like “D—” or “Male” or “Student”, reaching that state where there is no inner monologuist to parse mental input and output, where you lose track of you and become lost in experience, lost in time, lost inside the mind of another, that’s where a life is made. Remember that you, D—- (or T— or P— or whomever this f—–@aol.com person is), are a self-created character. You construct meaning around events in your life. You are ultimately the author of your own story, but in those moments where your internal narrator loses track of plot, loses track of its voice, one experiences, however fleetingly, the plot twists around which you’ll mold your character.

Losing yourself, becoming sufficiently courageous to acknowledge that there is no such thing as you, as D—-, leads to an important discovery: your future is, by and large, not determined by the events of the past. As the author, creator, and curator of your character, you have every right to discard rough drafts.

Learning to cede that control is beautiful. It is from this loss of self that springs creative energy, pure selfless giving to an other, and, more broadly, other acts of altruism like love and forgiveness.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

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