Do What Defines You

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman

A friend of mine was going on about really knowing people; “people… are not defined by what they do”, he said. The point he was making was not to judge people by the cover of what they do in life. But the deeper point, that he may not have even realized, was the tragedy in the truth of that statement. How tragic it is that we aren’t defined by what we do. It seems to me that, given the finite amount of time we have to live and become, that we spend more of our lives thinking about what we want to do than actually doing it.

I’m not talking about recreation. There are a lot of things we could do, but most of us have a shorter list of things we love to do. These are the things that give us purpose in life; they drive and define who we are, and we’d gladly choose them over the most expensive recreation. People refer to these higher things as passions or callings. I simply call doing the things that give us purpose, “living”. Using the term “living” seems like a misnomer, however, as people usually spend more of their life doing anything but the things that define them. The average person will spend twenty or thirty years of their “life” doing all of the things they don’t want to do in hopes that one day they’ll earn enough money to buy back what they gave up in the first place: the time to live. But time is exactly what we don’t have a lot of. If anything is worth burning our lives out on, wouldn’t it be the things that define us and give our lives purpose?

Time, Money, and Wealth

We don’t have any time because we spend most of it earning wealth, and in most cases, generating even more wealth for other people. Paul Graham once wrote about wealth, saying “Children tend to misunderstand wealth. They confuse it with money. They think that there is a fixed amount of it. And they think of it as something that’s distributed … rather than something that has to be created.” He goes on to say that wealth is, in fact, not money, but money is a convenient way of transferring one form of wealth to another. Wealth comes in many forms, including both money and time. Consider that most of the world spends the majority of their time trying to acquire money, viewing it as the key to doing what they want to do. In reality, all they’re doing is spending wealth (in the form of time) only to earn it back in the form of money, so they can then use it to buy back time. Those without the foresight to see this cycle wake up one day only to find that they’re out of time, and without time, the money is meaningless. All of their wealth was squandered trying to acquire the wealth they already had.

Most people never do what they want to do because they don’t value life as a form of wealth. And much of this is attributable to the fact that people focus on doing what they don’t want, rather than on doing the things that define them. The saying goes, “do what you love, love what you do”, but the more important thing in life – the thing we all must learn to do before we die – is to do what defines us and our lives; put simply, to do what we’re called to do on this Earth: the passions that make up our very being. That is, if “who you are” were to be set in the form of a movie, then what would your flick be about? Everyone has a short list of things that call to them; these are the things we were seemingly “meant to do” with our lives.

For anyone who’s read my profile, they know that I do a lot of things; that’s because I am a lot of things, and what I am lines up with what I do. I’m a musician; music defines me, and so I play music. I’m a writer; writing defines me, and so I write. I’m also a hacker, a scientist, a student of Greek, a teacher, and a Christian (not necessarily in that order). I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to do all of these things; rather, the joy in life is discovering who you are through trial and error, and learning about yourself as you yourself develop. I’m none of these things because anyone assigned me a title; I’m these things because that’s what I’ve found to define me.

Defining Yourself

Before you can do what defines you, you’ll have to figure out – to some degree – just who you are. These are sometimes easy to identify with. Nobody can tell you that you’re not something you are; that is to say, the things that define us can’t be taken away by anyone simply because we don’t meet their expectations. People’s expectations say more about them than it does you. I was a writer long before I got recognized as one, and a scientist long before I got hired as one. In fact, I think I was a scientist (or at least a pyro-technician) as early as age eight, when I used to set things on fire to see how they’d burn. True musicians play for the love of music; not because they might cut an album some day, and rock out just because they can. Figuring out what you are can be as simple as answering this question: what are the things you do, or wish you could do, just because you could?

Even if you can’t, you don’t necessarily need to be good at something for it to define you. There might be a musician deep down in there somewhere even if you suck to an amazing degree at playing music. We could stand to learn a lot from children in this respect. A child will wail on a guitar to a deafening degree, and think it’s the most amazing music they’ve ever heard – even though dogs are barking a block away. Children understand that the fun part about the journey of life is throwing caution to the wind and trying new things to see how they identify with you, and swimming in the joy of feeling yourself get lost in the things you have a passion for. And once you realize they’re within you, you’ll feel an impenetrable calling to them, as if they’re part of your destiny. When you find something like that, nobody can pay you to give it up.

Time is Wealth

Once you figure out who you are, the trick in getting to do “what you are” isn’t what you might think. It’s not about getting a good job, nor is it about earning enough money to do what you want. Put simply, finding the freedom to do what defines you is about valuing your passion as a form of wealth; one that is more valuable than the things you do now. How many other things do you spend the wealth of your time in life that are less important than living out who you are? Now what law, exactly, says that you have to keep doing these mundane things? If you’ve taken on responsibilities in your life that don’t align with what you’re destined to be, why are you wasting so much valuable time doing them at all? Some things may be non-negotiable in life, but there’s likely also a lot more baggage than you thought that you could drop from your life; ditch anything you can to make room to do higher things, as if doing the things that you are is the oxygen you need to survive. If you dropped just two hours a day (less than 10%) of the things you loathe in exchange for the things you love, you’ll gain an entire month of extra time each year to live for your passions.

Chances are, if you love something enough to view it as wealth, someone else might too eventually, and you could make a living at it. What is your dream job? Are you doing it? Are you at least in the ballpark? If your calling in life is to be a musician, what are you doing wasting your life as a store clerk? Isn’t your life more valuable than your job? Part of giving value to the things that define you is being bold enough to throw away the parts of your life that aren’t as valuable, so you can chase after the more important stuff. Think of it in terms of making a purchase: how much of the salary you make are you willing to spend buying your life? If you could change your career, is doing what you love worth “purchasing” with that salary cut? I’ve made this decision. I chose to do what I was passionate about instead; such decisions in essence are a “defining moment”.

Time is wealth. You spend it every day whether you want to or not. Nothing is more satisfying than spending that wealth doing the things that define you and make up who you are; how valuable is living out your movie to you? The only thing preventing you from doing the things that define you is the value you put on your own life.