A young man wrote to me and said he was 22 years old, and he had many "voices," many aspects of his personality, and he didn't really know who he was exactly or what he really wanted. He felt that he was one kind of person in some circumstances or with some people, and a completely different kind of person at other times. Here was my answer:
I haven't thought about that issue for a long time, but I remember really having a problem with it for awhile when I was about your age.
I slowly resolved it and thought I'd tell you what happened. One important factor was reading the book, More Perfect Union. It's a great book about how the United States Constitution was created. Many of the actual arguments that were made at the time were carefully written down, and the book reads like a novel, with the real speeches people made. Everybody had good points to make. When I was reading the book, I would read a really good argument, agreeing with everything the speaker said, and then someone else would stand up and make another very persuasive argument in the opposite direction, and I'd find myself agreeing with everything he said, too, even though it conflicted with the first one.
At the end, they had the Constitution, a truly remarkable document. But when it came time to sign it, nobody wanted to. Nobody was happy with it. And that's one of the reasons it's so amazing: It is a huge collection of compromise of opposing viewpoints and clashing ways of doing things. It takes so many things into account, and compromises in so many ways, that no one person got his way.
And I think that's the best way to think of myself. I have different wants, some of them in direct conflict with each other. I want to live a contented life, and I also want to become fabulously successful, for example. Which do I really want? I really want both. I have wasted time choosing one or the other, identifying myself with one or the other. Meanwhile, while I pursued success, I wasn't happy because an important part of me was being neglected. And when I decided to relax and find inner peace, the other part of me yearned for accomplishment. I've had lots of "who am I?" kinds of experiences like this.
I've slowly discovered that for any important decision I have to make, my best bet is to take my time and listen to all my voices: to my reason, to my intuition, to my feelings, to my different wants, to what I've learned from books and other people, to my gut instincts, to my philosophy and principles, to my compassion for others, to my selfish interests, etc. To listen to them all. They don't all get an equal vote. But they should all have a voice. They should all be heard. They all have something valuable to contribute.
All this listening takes time. It can't be done with other people around. But after enough thinking on my own, things start to come clear. It becomes apparent that some aspects are more important than other aspects. I start to see that some voices can be dismissed on this issue. A decision eventually becomes clear. Whether it's a decision of what to say to someone or what goal I will choose.
And then whatever goal I decide on then becomes a major "voice" in my future decisions. And so on.
Sometimes I'm not really happy with a decision I make, but it's the best I can come up with, and that's okay. Nobody was happy with the Consitution when it was done. Nobody wanted to sign it, but Benjamin Franklin got them to sign it by saying, basically, "Look, fellas, after all these months of debate by the finest minds in the country, we've come up with this thing. Never again will this opportunity come around. If we can't sign it now, this best hope for humanity will die here and now." He was right, and they knew it. They all signed.
I have since learned more about politics, and the more I learn, the more complicated each issue becomes because everybody has a good point, and everyone has their own special interests and slanted points of view, and that's very much what it's like inside myself.
However, knowing what my main goals are really helps clarify things. So the first place to start is asking, "What do you want?" I mean, what are your goals? What have you decided is best for you? And if you don't know, that only means now is a good time to take long walks and long drives, and sit by yourself at night listening to your voices, writing in a journal perhaps until a clear goal rises up out of the confusion. Once you have one clear goal, everything becomes less confusing.
I sometimes change my goals. And I think that's okay. But what has remained true is that time by myself thinking is the one thing I haven't done nearly enough of, and the one thing that always helps. I'm always busy working or reading or listening to tapes or watching movies, talking to people, or surfing the internet, and I never seem to get around to thinking, so this most important thing that needs to be done (thinking) ends up getting little pieces of leftover time here and there and that's where I make the big decisions of my life: In little, interrupted, leftover pieces of time. That's not right.
Anyway, I'm off the point a little bit. My point is that you aren't any of those voices. Or rather, you're all of those voices. It would be foolish to try to find the one you want to identify with. I think you can best think of yourself as a kind of committee. And when you're in conflict, you should not try to choose one side or the other. You should find a compromise between them.
Adam Khan is the author of Self-Reliance, Translated, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.