A quote from Mark Manson has stuck with me for the past few weeks:
“It’s worth remembering that for any change to happen in your life, you must be wrong about something. If you’re sitting there, miserable day after day, then that means you’re already wrong about something major in your life, and until you’re able to question yourself to find it, nothing will change.”
I’m someone who has a lot of trouble being “wrong.” Being a perfectionist who based almost the entirety of their self-worth on their academic success meant “being wrong” was completely out of the question. Every red mark next to a test question, or every correction on an essay, or anything that denoted by ability threatened something that meant everything to me: my identity as “The Smart One.”
I was raised to believe I was The Smart One. For as long as I can remember, I was praised for being “smart:” for reading more than I played, for having a big vocabulary, for being disciplined in school. I was told these things over and over again as a young child all the way into young adulthood, and as a result, I internalized it as being my identity. I was “smart.” The biggest facet of my personality was “smart.” The role I played in this world was “being smart.”
What this meant was that every time something I did seemed to not fit into the role of The Smart One, like a less-than-perfect grade or a hard class, not only did I have to deal with the issue at hand, I had to deal with the idea that who I am was being threatened. I became fiercely protective of what I came to view as my greatest value, and it put immense pressure on myself to do everything I thought The Smart One should do.
I studied. I did my homework not just on time, but early. I joined every club and program I could. I did extra credit I didn’t need. I obsessed over how my grades and academic accolades compared to that of my peers. I devoted all of my time and energy to being an academic success, to being The Smart One.
And what happened is I got really fucking depressed.
Somewhere in first few years of high school, this pressure got remarkably exhausting. I was exhausted by the long hours of studying, by the excess amount of effort that wasn’t enjoyable anymore, by the constant comparison of my self-worth to the letters on my transcripts. At some point, I asked myself, “What if I’m wrong?”
I didn’t actually think that exact phrase, in fact, I haven’t been able to articulate my exact epiphany until Mark Manson used it in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, where the quote I mentioned earlier comes from. But even if these exact words didn’t cross through my mind, the essence of them hit me like a truck somewhere around late sophomore year of high school. I looked around, completely exhausted, and asked myself who I was without academics.
If school didn’t exist, if no one ever asked to see my grades, if no one told me this test or that essay would be the determining factor of getting into college (and getting a degree, and getting a job, and…so on and so forth), if every descriptor I used to define myself had to be unrelated to those of The Smart One, what would make me me?
Suddenly I realized that somewhere along the line, I’d completely abandoned all hope of finding any other facets of myself. When I realized I wasn’t a sporty kid or a theater kid, I threw myself into school and figured it was all I had. I stopped trying. I stopped exploring.
I stopped asking myself what would make me happy and started asking myself what would protect the identity that had been handed to me and I had chosen to accept.
And so I stopped. I still tried in school, because even if I wasn’t going to allow it to entirely consume my identity, it still interested and fulfilled me in some ways. I was still curious and eager to learn- but I was sick of making myself miserable in order to maintain a label that, ultimately, didn’t serve as anything more than a way for people to categorize me in their minds. It’s easier for people to look around a room and point to the class clown, the brainiac, the slacker, etc., than it is to look around and try to understand the different pieces of each person in the room.
But it’s not my job to make myself easier to understand. It’s my job to make myself a happy, interesting, positive contributor to the world.
So I had to face the question: What if I, and everyone else, was wrong about me being The Smart One?
What if there was more to me? Who was I if I lost that label? What lit me up, what made me excited to be alive, what made me happy? At first, I had no clue where to begin- I was, first and foremost, someone completely consumed by an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression. Nothing at all made me happy- probably because I was so consumed by living the life of The Smart One. I was starting with a blank slate, a world where I had to meet and get to know myself without anyone else’s expectations getting in the way for the first time in my life.
Luckily, I fell into my purpose on accident. I wandered into a yoga studio, klutzed around on my mat for an hour, and fell in love with a practice for no reason other than it made me feel good. It made me feel like nothing else I’d ever encountered: it felt like something I wanted to do versus something I felt like I had to do. It felt like a choice.
And the first time I taught, the first time I really taught a full Vinyasa class during teacher training two years ago, it felt like something I’d been seeking my entire life. It felt a world away from the role of The Smart One, the role where I was expected to be a certain way, act a certain way, speak a certain way. It felt like a space to speak a truth that hand long lay dormant inside of me. It felt like I’d been wrong about everything my entire life, and it felt so incredibly right.
Once I got a taste of that, everything changed.
Being wrong didn’t feel scary anymore, it felt like the first step to finding what it was I was truly supposed to be doing. It felt like the rule my parents had at the dinner table when I was younger: try a bite, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat the rest. No one sits and agonizes over whether or not they should or shouldn’t like chicken curry. No one has an existential crisis over what it says about them if they don’t like chicken curry. No one lets other people dictate what foods they do or don’t like. They just try a bite, and either decide they like it, or decide they don’t and move on.
And just like I decided I didn’t like beef stroganoff or whatever as a kid, I decided killing myself over getting a certain grade was something I didn’t like. In fact, it was the kind of thing you don’t like so much you make a big show about spitting it into your napkin and making a face while you drink some water to get rid of the aftertaste.
So I quit a ton of clubs that I’d only joined because they looked good on college apps. I gave myself permission to not know everything right off the bat. I allowed myself the space to explore other parts of myself that were more engaging, interesting, and joy-inducing than creating a life and personality that completely revolved around my grades.
And here’s the magic part: I became a person who was way more fun to be around.
No one wants to be around someone who allows their personality to be defined by other people, or grades, or anything else that’s arbitrary. No one wants to be around someone who is a one-dimensional stereotype they’ve been led to believe is the fullest expression of their personality. No one wants to be around someone who’s miserable all the time.
They want to be around someone who is happy to explore all of who they are- someone who is willing to admit that there is a possibility they are wrong about everything and is also willing to do the work to fix it.
I didn’t just abandon being The Smart One- that would be just as bad as sticking with her. I made an effort to fill myself back up with new things. New interests. New hobbies. New skills. New passions. It was okay to admit that I was wrong, but I also had to make an effort to find what was right. So here’s what I’ve come to learn:
I’m a writer.
I’m a yogi.
I’m a teacher.
I’m a student.
I’m a person who is, above all else, driven by passion and a firm belief that change is possible.
I was wrong, for the majority of my life at this point, about who I was and who I was going to be. I was wrong about what I thought my life was going to be like. I was wrong about who and what I thought I should devote my time and energy to. So I admitted it and moved on. There’s no shame involved, just recognition, acceptance, and motivation to change.
This doesn’t mean I have it all figured out yet, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not wrong about anything right now.
But it means I now know how to change.