We aren’t born anything.
We’re made. And now,
That’s my passionate battle cry for this post. I feel very strongly about this subject, as I firmly believe it is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Today we are going to speak about being ‘born this way’. Over and over and over again in my life I’ve encountered cases of people who believe they just are one way or another, and there’s nothing they can do about that. We’re either happy or sad, lucky or unlucky, impulsive, short-tempered, bad at sports, stupid, slow to get movies, shy, introverted, awkward, manic-depressive, emotional, logical, bad at math, intrinsically entrepreneurial or intrinsically not, risk-taking, impatient, nonconformist, and so on. You get the point.
God damn it.
I feel strongly about this because I used to be the exact same way. I thought we all just were as we were. I was a shy, incredibly awkward introverted Asian kid. I’d look at all the popular kids and wish I could be popular. I’d have all these crushes, and wish I was one of the kids that was just somehow naturally good at talking to girls. I was constantly bullied by others, and silently resigned myself to my fate.
I sucked at sports, was chubby, and couldn’t run a mile to save my life. I compensated for my lack of friends by retreating into fantasy, and became a prolific fiction reader (couldn’t stand that nonfiction bullshit). Eventually, books gave way to games and I just played games and lived my life on the computer.
It was a vicious cycle. The fewer friends I had, the more I retreated into my own little world. The more I retreated into my own world, the less I could identify and connect with the people around me, and the more antisocial and awkward I became, and consequently my friend count continued to drop.
At some point in middle school, it became unfathomable for me to imagine how things could possibly ever change. Not only did I not have a single clue where to start, but there was simply such an immense backlog of things wrong with me there was no way in hell I could fix it all.
I think I became suicidally depressed sometime in the 8th grade. I distinctly remember having a fairly large biology leaf compilation project due that year, and the despair at the overwhelmingness of the project was so large that I’d lie awake in bed at night and secretly wish I could kill myself so I didn’t have to deal with finishing that project. Yeah, it was kind of ridiculous.
At one point, I even got into all this random crazy conspiratorial and end-of-the world crap as a result of my desperation. There was this one random dude who thought the world was going to end in May of that year. I fervently hoped he was right.
The worst part of it is when we start to identify with our position in life, and instead of merely resigning ourselves to our place, we begin to actively embrace it. I started to see myself as just that weird kid who’d never have friends and would die alone, and started embracing the fact that I was weird as shit. I used to actively experiment with walking with weird ass contortions of my feet in middle school and became proud of being batshit crazy.
I still am, but that’s beside the point.
Thankfully, I was saved by my suicidal tendencies before I became lost forever. My freshman year of high school, there was this girl I had this massive infatuation with. Nothing special there, I’d been having these since about the 1st or 2nd grade. However, this girl actually acknowledged my existence, and we actually talked. This was, I believe, literally the first documented case in my entire life of a girl I had ever liked ever speaking to me (besides one time in the fourth grade where one girl I liked wrote me a goodbye card when I moved because our teacher forced her to. More on that on Tuesday).
And so because this girl actually spoke to me and we were actually friends, real honest-to-god friends, this was about a 10000000x improvement over any crush I had ever had in my entire life up till then, and I became obsessed over this girl. I’m not going to get into too many details here, because it is downright creepy, but essentially I never stopped thinking about her 24/7 and she was the only thing I ever thought about, ever.
Only problem is she kind of had a boyfriend. I kept hoping she’d dump that guy and go out with me, the creepy ridiculously obsessed awkward kid, but for some reason that never happened. And so that summer, I hit pretty much the lowest emotional trough of my life, and pretty much realized I would actually die alone and would never stand a chance with any girl ever. I came to the conclusion that it would probably be best to kill myself now and not suffer though an unbearable ~70 more years of being alone and outcast from society.
By some miracle of divine intervention (aka Google), however, I stumbled upon David DeAngelo, the pickup artist, and he saved my life (thanks, Eben). Here was a guy who, for the first time in my life, was telling me that it didn’t have to always be this way. I could actually become good with girls, if I took him up as my messiah and followed his holy ways.
I was skeptical, but with immediate death as the alternative, I figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try and see if what he said was true. God, I love being suicidal. It is pretty much the greatest impetus to action ever, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s not an ingenious force designed by natural selection to drive us ultimately to great glory and success. Hence, I resolved to either fix this part of my life and get better at picking up girls or kill myself.
Ha. Like that happened. But seriously, the shit really worked. It was all a massive fear of rejection for me. But with my life on the line, I managed to force myself past that, and actually started engaging in conversations with girls I liked. In retrospect, I was total shit and everything I said makes me cringe now to even think about it, but my god, that was the best year of my life. Just being able to talk to girls and have them actively display the barest modicum of interest in reciprocation was such an infinite improvement over the entirety of my life to that point that I was living on clouds.
I was absolutely mindblown to realize that this shit really worked. That I really could change this one aspect of myself so deeply ingrained and everpresent in my life to that point that I had previously thought it would be there forever.
That got me thinking, and I realized that it might be possible to change every other aspect of my life that I was unsatisfied with. And then that was it. This one, simple improvement shattered almost every preconception I had ever held.
Sure, I was fat and had never run a mile in my entire life, but it didn’t have to be that way forever. I joined cross country and have to date run a marathon and climbed Kilimanjaro.
I was terrified at the prospect of public speaking and had a terrible lisp and mumbled egregiously. So I joined speech team and after sucking tremendously for half a year and feeling like total absolute shit, I ended up being one of two people at our school to qualify for nationals the following year.
Hell, I wasn’t even that good at school and had middling grades in middle school and never really applied myself. But I decided to take up every core AP class offered and even came to school an hour earlier so I could take another class, and ended up taking more AP tests than any other person and getting straight As every year, which I have to think played a part in me getting into Harvard.
I even started my own micro-finance organization, which was the first instance of anyone ever starting a student-led initiative at my school as far as I’m aware, and that ultimately laid the roots for my path towards entrepreneurship and the Thiel Fellowship.
Even my desire for travel and adventure was sparked here. One random weekend I decided I wanted to climb a mountain, and managed to convince a friend to drive 1,200 miles with me to the Appalachian Trail and back to climb the tallest point on the trail (Clingmans Dome) for no other reason than capriciousness. Was pretty much the best trip ever, and I’ve now been to every single continent (from leaving the country once to go visit China as a kid).
In short, learning to talk to girls is actually directly responsible for almost every success I’ve had in life since. That, and the high level of literacy I gained from reading so much damn fantasy as a kid.
So personal story aside, what I hope to get across here is that NOTHING IS SET IN STONE. Anything we don’t like about ourselves, or where we’re at, we can change. The fact that we are just how we are and can’t do anything about it is by and large a massive myth and an utterly harmful fabrication.
It’s true that it’s often the case that we end up how we have always been - because change is hard, and change is unlikely. Looking at 100 people today, I’d have great odds to say that the vast majority will probably be much the same way in a decade. Some, however, will be drastically different.
Change is possible. To say we’re born some way, or that we’re stuck being some way, for better or for worse, is simply blatantly wrong. It’s defeatist. Change is always possible. Some things are immensely hard to change, and most people aren’t willing to change, either because it’s difficult or because they believe they can’t - this, unfortunately, becomes a vicious cycle and perpetuates the myth that change is not possible, which in turn convinces people that they can’t change, lending credence to the myth.
Fuck that. I changed pretty much everything about myself, and it all started with one pivotal change. The worst thing is to begin to identify with who we are even if we aren’t happy with it. Eventually, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we start to even embrace that aspect of ourselves - I was just the shy nerdy kid who sat in the back row and never talked to anyone and would die alone, horribly depressed and utterly unnoticed by everyone, ever. And it’s game over from there. We start to flaunt that part of ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we shouldn’t change - people should like us for who we are, and we shouldn’t have to change ourselves for them.
Fuck that. If you’re a douchebag asshole racist neo-Nazi idiot, you should probably change that about yourself, and people shouldn’t like you for who you are, because you’re a fuckhead.
One caveat here. I’m not a batshit insane extremist believer in Lamarckism. There are obviously some things that can’t be changed. Sorry, you can’t be a mouse, because your genes dictate you will grow up to be a human. Similarly, you probably can’t be black if you were born Asian. But beyond that, yes, you can probably change pretty much everything about yourself with enough applied effort.
One area where this is particularly contentious is around mental illness and disease. A lot of people believe a host of mental illnesses are genetic, and consequently those who are predisposed to those illnesses (e.g. bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic, depression, etc.) are pretty much fucked for life and there’s nothing that they can do about that besides take lots of medication and hope the symptoms aren’t too bad.
It could very well be true that certain people are predisposed to a mental illness just like anything else - some of us are probably more predisposed than others to be fat, or to be strong, or to be intelligent, et so on. But it’s not a firm dictation of our fate.
My depression, for instance, was almost certainly circumstantial, and because of this, I suspect a ton of depressions are probably similarly circumstantial. My life sucked in every way possible, hence, I felt like shit and wanted to kill myself. When my life stopped sucking and I started leading my life like I wanted to, my depression totally vanished (it now pretty much only bothers me in the winter possibly because of SAD, and if I lived in Palo Alto or San Diego for the rest of my life I’d probably be the happiest person in the world. Thankfully until then, there’s a blue light).
Yes, we may very well be predisposed to things. But that is by far the end of the story, and humanity has triumphed and flourished on this planet for one reason: we are the most adaptable of all the creatures. This is true on the individual level as well as the societal level. Turns out you can turn perfectly normal rhesus monkeys into antisocial sadist freaks just by depriving them of a mother in infancy and isolating them from other monkeys. Our nature is designed to be dictated by our nurture.
If there’s anything we would like to see differently about ourselves or where we are - guess what? We’re not helpless. We can change it.
To end, Invictus.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.