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The Importance of Breaking Free of … Yourself

Source | LinkedIn : By Michael Puett

We know countless students who entered college thinking, “I’m going to figure out who I am, and then make my life plan, and hopefully have an impact on the world.” After all, it’s how you were raised, and it’s the message you heard — from your parents, from school counselors, from the culture at large — about how to have a good and flourishing life. 

But now that you’re graduating, you might be wondering if you did all you were supposed to have done. You haven’t figured out your calling. You haven’t found your passions. You haven’t found yourself. Instead, you are taking a gap year. You’ve taken a job offer but aren’t sure it’s for you. You’re headed for law school even though you really didn’t plan on being a lawyer. Rather than feeling liberated by a four-year search for your true self, you ended up feeling anxious, oppressed, and constrained by it. 

Our recommendation: Read Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and other great Chinese thinkers who lived thousands of years ago, because they have the real liberation you are looking for. 

For instance, instead of embracing your self, Confucius urged, overcome your self. Break from who you think you are, because that is how you will change and grow.

Don’t feel pressured to make firm plans for the person you think you are now and will be years hence. They will box you in. You will wake up decades from now wondering how you are living a life decided on by who you believed you truly were when you were 21 years old. Instead, keep living life for the as-yet unknown person you will keep on morphing into; keep the possibilities open.

This is why, when students encounter Chinese philosophy, they are often relieved to learn that there was a group of thinkers who thought hard 2,000 years ago about the very same things on their own undergraduate minds.

These philosophers had keen insights into human psychology. What they discovered sounds bleak at first. They saw us for who we are: messy creatures, full of contradictions and anxieties, petty jealousies, complicated feelings, ambitions, hopes, longings, and fears.

Not only that, they saw us each of us bumping up against other messy creatures all day long. This is what it means to be on this earth: our lives are composed almost entirely of the relationships we have with those around us. 

For most of us, those relationships aren’t easy. That’s because, as these philosophers understood well, as we endlessly bump up against each other, loving one another, trying to get along, we tend to fall into patterns of behavior. We react in the same predictable ways. Encounters with people draw out a variety of emotions and reactions from us: One sort of comment will almost invariably draw out feelings of anger, while a certain gesture from someone else might elicit a feeling of calm. Our days are spent being passively pulled in one direction or another depending on who we encounter or what situations we are in. Worse still, these passive reactions have a cascading effect. We react even to the subtlest signals from those around us. A smile or a frown on a passerby can cause a slight change in our mood in an instant. The reactive patterns we get stuck in — sometimes good, but more often, bad — ripple outward and affect others too.

Read On…

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