You are / whatever you say / you are.

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Perhaps Eminen had it right when he said, “I am / whatever you say / I am.” We are what we say we are. YOU are what you say you are. (Or maybe he’s completely wrong, because he’s suggesting that his identity is whatever other people say he is – so why argue with others, and just accept your identity as defined by others?) For the purposes of this post, I can’t get this idea out of my head: that I am whatever I say I am. And what we say about ourselves matters.

Sometimes our cognitive frameworks (put simply: our minds), get in the way of who we really are.

I’ll use running as a short example. For a long time, I said to myself “I want to be a runner” — I jogged and I huffed and I puffed, and I iced my knees and went back to swimming and looked longingly at the smooth runners pounding the pavement throughout San Francisco and gliding easily up and down the hills through the Presidio.  I dabbled in running, I took long breaks, and I never got past the “jogging” phase. For a while.

Then, somehow, I started running more and I would find myself making time for 6 and 8 mile runs and actually liking them. By all standards, I was a “runner.”  And yet when people would ask me if I was a runner, I would brush the thought aside, quickly dismissing it by saying:  “I’m not a runner … I’m training to be, but I’m not a runner.” In some regards, adopting new personal identities takes as much effort and training in the mind as it does physical training.

It takes a lot of time before we acknowledge within ourselves that we are what we do.

How long do we have to train before we become ourselves?

In July, I finished my first half marathon, and yet for some reason I still I didn’t picture myself as a runner.  Despite having run 13.1 miles through the hills of San Francisco, I still declined to acknowledge my status as a “runner.” Somehow in my brain, I couldn’t put “me” and “”runner” together in the same schema.

My Dad, once a great runner, finally had to correct me:

He said, “you know Sarah, you ran a half marathon.”

“I think you can call yourself a runner now.”

Our minds can be slow to accept the changes that happen so readily at our fingertips. Sometimes I still feel like the nervous, awkward girl from my teens and I wonder if I’m really capable of the vast amounts of responsibility and increasing autonomy in front of me. I won’t lie: sometimes I’m scared shitless by what there is ahead of me. I feel like my dreams are still “out there,” — and it takes time to switch my brain over to the idea that somehow already I’ve attained some of my dreams, and that life — and my goals — are expanding out in front of me. And that, through careful, repeated, steady progress, I can, and will, become better than I am today.

To what extent do we limit what we’re capable of simply by not believing in our own abilities? On several occasions, I’ve surprised myself in doing better than I thought I was capable of. I didn’t believe I could finish six miles at the end of a triathlon – and then I did it. I didn’t think I could run 13 miles — and then I did it.

The question, then, is: what are we capable of? More importantly, what are we capable of beyond what we imagine we can do? What sorts of things can we do, if we actually allow ourselves the possibilities to dream? It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it — it was that I thought I couldn’t do it. There’s a distinct difference – and to sell yourself short of your abilities by not believing in yourself is a terrible waste.

What are you not doing simply because you think you can’t do it?

Excellence rarely exceeds expectations, my coach always taught me. By the time you’ve attained a goal, your mind will be seeking new ventures and tasks to tackle. You won’t realize how quickly you’re growing until you’ve already surpassed some of your earlier expectations. Despite proving to myself that I was now capable of running further and further distances, I kept pushing the boundaries of a “runner identity” further from my reach, not reconciling this state of being with who I was becoming. I was limiting myself by dreaming too small.

Three months later, I have another confession to make: Much like I never considered myself a runner, I’ve also never considered myself a writer. I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a writer even after I left school and (somewhat sheepishly, I must admit) — I found that I missed writing papers. I wrote ridiculously long emails to friends and drafted papers about topics that had no audiences. I wrote aimlessly in notebooks and spiral bounds and in the margins of books. Post-it note littered the pages of my magazines with ideas about how I would respond to the authors. I had anonymous conversations with myself, in my head, and imagined ideas for possible stories and fiction books. On long drives, runs, swims, and bus rides, I found myself crafting stories and books in my head.

I dreamed about writing books and short stories, but was too busy with my “work” and “career” to actually focus on writing. Somehow, I started a blog (it starts with) in order to let myself keep writing. My friends in the design world (and I love design, by the way) think I’m crazy for wanting to write so much. It was a bit aimless, I’ll admit, but the pull and tug to keep writing was there. Somehow, I was marching along a path that I knew I had to do. A year or two after graduate school, I found myself in a long conversation with a good friend and mentor, and I said: you know, I think I finally know what I want to be when I grow up:

I want to be a writer.

She looked at me with a funny look on her face:

You ARE a writer, she said. And again, I found myself subject to the same “closed-mind” problem as before.

How much of who we are is limited by the way we think about ourselves? Are we much more capable that we admit, or even dare to dream? How long does it take – and how many examples does it take – to become convinced that we are, in fact, what we do?

Who are you? Who do you want to be? And who is it that you say you are? This is important. Are you what others say you are? Or are you what you say you are?  More importantly — do you dream big and admit your capabilities to yourself?

Today, it is with pride that I stand up and admit – to me (and to you): I don’t want to be a writer someday.  I AM a writer. And I freaking love it.


What’s your biggest, scariest dream? How would you describe yourself , if no one were really paying attention? Leave your answer in the comments below.

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8 Responses to You are / whatever you say / you are.

  1. […] Thank you for coming to Water Falling Upwards! My mission is to find and capture insights from everyday, extraordinary living and share them with others. I write about the psychology of navigating the professional world, the millennial … visit. […]

  2. […] running shoes. I own running shoes. Running is free. I don’t need to be a member of a club or go to track practice or do […]

  3. My biggest scariest dream(s) are what I call “see a problem, fix a problem,” where I go around with the time and resources to fix things that just don’t seem right to me (e.g. My wife is going to grad. school part-time and there were no scholarships for part-time students. “Oh is that right, there is now!” (ideally I would make this happen); folks can’t take advantage of an internship in a big city because housing is too expensive. “Oh is that right, you can now” (I just made it possible for housing to be subsidized). Those are a few examples and a Jay-Z quote I wrote on my daily blog comes to mind: “There are much bigger problems in the world, I know; but I first had to take care of the world I know.”(from Kingdom Come).

    The second scary dream which is tied to the first, is to just do whatever the heck comes to mind and make it financially stable. (e.g. This Seth Godin guy seems to be pretty cool. Ok well he has about 12 books, let’s start a book club where we read 1 book of his a month (i’m going to propose that one on Brazen..You in Sarah? :) )..”oh the model is so successful others want to pay US to help them create similar ones around the country (I’m sorry that is too small), around the world.”

    If no one was looking I would describe myself pretty much as I describe myself now, but LOUDER! My signature wouldn’t be the only place you see “Ambassador Bruny,” instead…. “Hi, I’m AMBASSADOR BRUNY. I’m really passionate about representing all those big dreams that you have in your head when you are at your best self. Let me help you get there.”

    Thanks for letting me go on.

    Your Ambassador,
    Mike Bruny

  4. […] took a long time for me to realize that I was a runner. It took a lot of just running for me to acknowledge that I was a runner – 2 years’ […]

  5. Dianna says:

    Sarah. I don’t know if you know this, but I follow your posts and somehow stumbled upon this one yesterday (did you put a link to it somewhere? With all of the social media coming at me, I sometimes lose track of how I land on certain pages). I’m in the midst of redefining myself and my career (ok, when am I not?) and this post sent shockwaves of encouragement through my system. I’ve also felt what you’re describing – like last year when I desperately wanted to be this cool, traveling, smart, global health person but suddenly got stuck when I was about to print business cards. It felt presumptuous to label myself as a “global health consultant” after working domestically for the past two years, and I didn’t want to come across as a poser (to myself or to anyone that was looking, which, let’s be honest, is no one). So I didn’t print them. Then, a few months later, after contracting on a project in Nepal and flying to Kenya for my second assignment, it hit me that “global health consultant” was EXACTLY what I was (what I AM) and how silly it was that I had to fly halfway around the world to take ownership of that title. I suddenly found myself knee deep in the title, as the person that for so long, I just “said I was.”

    Another example: I am developing a mobile health app at the moment and our team recently submitted a patent application on which my name is listed. I therefore took the opportunity to dub myself as “inventor” on my most recent resume. My younger sister, in her keep-me-in-check sibling way, sort of laughed at me and said, “What do you invent?!” After I clued her in on the officially pending status of my inventorship, I stepped back and thought to myself, “Hang on. I invent things all the time!” Sure, it might be a new recipe or a database to help an organization track their clients, but I’ve also invented programs and proposals and have seen them come to life. I don’t need the United States Federal Government to tell me I am an inventor – I already am!

    So – as I hesitate once again to call myself by yet another name (“designer”) that still feels unvalidated by the external world, I will remember your post, and remember my own examples, and push forward with the confidence that “I am whatever I say I am” (and then really BE it too).

    -Dianna Kane (global health consultant/inventor/designer)

  6. David says:

    What’s your biggest, scariest dream?
    I am 53.75 years of age and I’ve written over 150 songs and poems. My biggest scariest dream is to sing and play my songs in front of a crowd of people.
    How would you describe yourself , if no one were really paying attention?
    I am a husband, father, son … I am never really at peace unless I am creating a song, a poem, an idea or building a wall, a house, or a shelf, none of which I do often enough. People fascinate me and they tend to gravitate towards me and tell me their life stories. I think it’s because they think they can trust me not to judge them and in this they are correct. I have always believed you can only do who you are.
    Thanks for this great site which I have yet to read completely! It is awesomeness, for sure!

    • Sarah says:

      David, I think what you’ve written is one of the gutsiest things of all: you’ve told us all your dream. So many people won’t admit their dreams to themselves, nor to their peers, and you’ve gone and shared it to us. You’re so close, too: I imagine that all of your work is ready to be shared, and that people will be much more accepting of your nervousness if you tell them your dream (and fear!). I hope you get to make this the year of manifestation: when you decide that you’re going to do something about your dream, and then do it, little by little. Please write me back when you eventually play your songs in front of someone, and then in front of a few more people!!

  7. Amy says:

    This is beautiful. I needed to read this today. Thank you.