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Don't Be Defined

03/06/2012 06:02 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2012

Don't Be Defined

Caterpillar: Who are YOU?


Alice: This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. I -- I hardly know, sir, just at present -- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.

~ Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Who am I? It's an anguish-inducing question for kids. And made all the more excruciating by a society that pressures them to answer it at a progressively younger age. When I was younger, I used to tell inquirers that I aspired to be a politician. It gave me a secure sense of self -- a unique identity beyond my generic, well-to-do childhood. Years later, in college, when people ask me the same question, I concede that "I have no idea".

It's hard to not know what the future has in store for you. It's even harder to resist pretending to others -- or deluding yourself -- that you know.

As I rummaged through my Microsoft word documents, I found a collection that I wrote in 2004 when I was 12-years-old. It was the first time anybody had asked me that perennially haunting question: "who are you?" It was elementary school and I was applying to middle schools at the time; "Six core values shape [Blank School's] character; caring, community, honesty, respect, responsibility, and trust. Which of these values do you feel best defines you or means the most to you?" This was just one of the daunting application questions thrown at my hapless 6th grade self, but I remember it in particular. It made me angry. My resentment only grew as I witnessed my friends excitedly scurrying through my school's narrow halls discussing grades, extracurriculars, acceptances and rejections. The entire scene provoked a visceral, allergic reaction in me that, as a twelve year old, I couldn't intellectualize.

Only now do I realize that, in a sense, it was corrupting me. For the first time, I became aware of my trajectory in life and of society's expectations for it. For the first time, I began to disregard my present fulfillment and enjoyment in order to secure future external success.

I began thinking more cynically and strategically about my life. Was I going to the NBA? As an asthmatic Jew, probably not. And so I cut-down on the basketball and ramped up the piano playing -- something I was less into -- but was convinced would be a better "selling point." Volunteering at my local Veteran's Association had always felt natural, but now, as an asset to my application that I felt pressured to maintain, it felt forced. That summer, instead of exploring my bucolic Santa Monica neighborhood by bike with friends, a lifelong tradition, I enrolled in the Johns Hopkins gifted youth program. The program took place at Mirman School in Los Angeles. Mirman itself is notorious for administering IQ tests to prospective pre-schoolers.

I thought I had found a clear path to worldly success. But in reality, I was more lost than ever. I had stopped listening to myself; genuine interest meant nothing anymore. I had sold out. But at such an early age, I had done so unwittingly. And only in retrospect, can I delineate the negative influences that reinforced this newfound opportunism. It was an educational system that demands adult-like achievements before even becoming a teenager. It was those yuppie parents at dinner parties constantly asking what I had done that summer and what colleges I was thinking about. It was my need for validation from both.

Millions of kids feel the burden of appearing successful rather than the wonder of self-discovery. Many unknowingly or unwillingly cave in. They live lives that please peers, parents and institutions rather than their inner-selves.

A life lived for others will likely lead to mediocrity, but it will always lead to misery. Various research has shown that prestige and money do not correlate with happiness, but a recent study highlighted in a London Guardian article is perhaps most illuminating. In it, Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse working in palliative care with deathbed-ridden patients, recorded their top five regrets. The easily most common regret reported: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me".

In Steve Jobs' ubiquitously read biography by Walter Isaacson, the author writes that Jobs lamented "the new generation of kids, who seemed to him more materialistic and careerist than his own." "When I went to school, it was right after the sixties before this general wave of practical purposefulness had set in", Jobs said. "Now students aren't even thinking in idealistic terms."

And so, to my fellow students: I advise that you blaze your own path regardless of any ostracism it entails. If you work hard, even at something less conventional than finance or law, you will be vindicated -- if not financially like Jobs, then in your future fulfillment.

I am still grappling with political and grassroots solutions to our education system as a whole. So as a just-turned-twenty year old, sophomore in college, I decided to contain the ambitions of this article and leave it to those who have spent their lives crafting solutions to the problems I have just outlined. Below is some incredibly eloquent, powerful material, that in my opinion, should be at the forefront of education reform.

But while systemic reform is much needed, it's up to each individual to have the courage to live the life he knows, deep inside, is authentically his. He must endure, not short-circuit, the painful process of self-discovery. And most of all, resist prematurely answering the question -- "who are you" -- when that answer is not in fact known.

(Some of these propose broader ideas that can serve as the inspiration for reform. Others propose tangible solutions.)

Ken Robinson's TedTalks and books

Documentary, Race To Nowhere