How To Become Something

I was struck today by something I read on the Anne Frank House website:

On this Q&A-style page, there is question: “What does writing mean to Anne?”

The answer that follows is this:

Writing meant a great deal to Anne. It was her way to vent.

The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate. – Anne Frank, 16 March 1944

She hoped one day to become a famous writer or journalist. Although she doubted from time to time whether she was talented enough, Anne wanted to write anyway.

That last sentence is so key! She hoped to become a famous writer and, in fact, she did but not in a way she could have ever expected. Anne Frank perished in the Holocaust at age 15, and her diary went on to be published after her death. Since then, more than 30 million copies of the diary have sold in more than 70 languages.

Anne wanted to become a writer and how did she achieve it? By writing!

There were plenty of others who wanted to be writers. But if they weren’t writing during the war, or if they were waiting until they had more education or experience to really begin writing in earnest, then they did not give themselves the same chance of actually becoming writers.

This also reminds me of one time that I was on a flight. I must have journaled for about 7 or 8 hours straight when the person next time me decided to ask me, “Do you want to be a writer?”

Now, perhaps this person really meant to ask whether I hoped to one day become a famous writer or a journalist since, after all, it had to have been plainly evident that I wanted to be writing since that is what I was doing.

And herein lies the distinction between goals and identity.

In To Hell with the Hustle: Reclaiming Your Life in an Overworked, Overspent, and Overconnected World, Jefferson Bethke talks about how goals are generally about doing something, whereas identity is about being someone.

He gives this memorable anecdote:

Some people, when they begin a new hobby, get a huge burst of ambition. Take running, for example. They’ll almost immediately tell themselves, I want to run a 10K or half marathon by this time next year. That’s helpful and great. But I think a better approach is to focus on identity: I want to be someone who runs as a normal part of my life. Or, I will run at least five minutes five days a week. There’s no finish line. Nothing to really accomplish. Make it more of a practice or way of life that will hopefully stay with you for the next sixty years. Because it’s not about the marathon. It’s about I’m a runner. And the latter to me seems to bring longer, deeper, richer benefits.

As the classical philosophers understood: We are what we repeatedly do.

Becoming someone who does something is a matter of habit and activity.

What is one thing in your life about which you’d like to go from saying, “I want to run a 10k” to “I’m a runner”?

The way to become something is by doing that thing until you become someone who does that thing.

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