You’ve probably heard the famous words by George Bernard Shaw – Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. I didn’t always agree with this. A hopeless romantic at heart, I believe(d) in things like fate and destiny and reincarnated souls – life was about discovering the person that you innately are. Over the past 27 years, I’ve come to realise that this was perhaps a belief of convenience – a comforting thought that I alone was not responsible or accountable for how things turned out.
Shaw suggests that we have the power to create who we are – that it is not necessarily predetermined or limited by fate, genetics or circumstances. We are in the driver’s seat. A scary thought.
So, how do we create ourselves? A creative process always involves some trial and error – and it’s certainly more of an art than a science. The genius masterpiece is often born out of chaos and mess, rather than by following a linear and structured process. So creating yourself will inevitably involve experiencing and experimenting with different actions, beliefs, people, places – until something just clicks. Research shows that 80% of life’s defining moments typically occur by the age of 35. So, for most people, this period of experimentation occurs in their twenties and early thirties.
As life provides the opportunities and experiences for us to “get creating”, over these decades we will inevitably create several different versions of ourselves. I’ve been the shy girl who was afraid to leave her Mum’s side and the girl who travels solo around the world. I’ve been the quiet girl in the group tutorial who kept her opinions to herself and the girl who stood in front of a classroom and taught others. I’ve been the girl who cried while abseiling from an extreme fear of heights and the girl who willingly jumped out of a plane. I’ve been stable, serious and mature and I’ve been reckless, irrational and spontaneous. I’ve been the long-term girlfriend for 6 years and I’ve been the independent single girl for almost as many. I have been all of these girls – yes, part of it is growing up but I think part of it is also about trying different versions of me “on for size”. It wasn’t always a perfect fit.
While in this decade of creativity (my twenties), these are the 3 key lessons I have learned:
1. Life is shades of grey – 95% of the time
After the girls I’ve been, I’ve realised first hand that good people can do bad things (don’t let your imagination run wild here – “bad” is subjective). I’ve fallen off my high horse and got back up again. But there needs to be room for mistakes and growth in the creative process. We are the things we repeatedly do, not the things we do once or twice (three times, max). There are some things I still think are pretty black and white – drink driving or double denim, for example – but overall I’m far less judgemental and much more empathetic for having tried those versions of me on for size.
2. Explore the world to find your place in it
No surprises here. For me, travel is an essential tool and medium for creating the person that you are. It exposes you to different people, cultures, places, beliefs, traditions and social norms – and it makes you realise, or reminds you, that there are many different ways to live a life. An important truth that we can often forget tucked away in our comfy bubble of existence. It also provides a much higher number of opportunities for challenge and growth on a per day basis than staying at home:
Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black and white.
– Mark Jenkins
3. You will always be a work in progress
If life is about creating yourself, then it’s a process – a journey that means you’ll always be, in some way or another, a “work-in-progress”. Experts used to say our personality was fully formed by age 7 and our frontal lobe by age 25. But recent studies show that “average levels of personality traits change gradually but systematically throughout the lifespan, sometimes even more after age 30 than before”. You will not be the same person you were at 25 at 55 and there is always potential for growth and improvement or simply change.
So if Shaw is right – life really is about creating yourself – then lets make it a masterpiece. I’m no Mona Lisa but, somewhere between the girls I’ve been and the woman I’ll become, is a work of art in progress. And I intend on taking some creative licence.
This article was inspired by All the Girls & Women I Have Known.