what’s there to find?

Last week, I received this fortune in a fortune cookie:

“Turn your thoughts within – find yourself”

People say things like this quite alot. It sounds very romantic and exciting to describe one’s trials and tribulations as being in the service of some greater, higher goal – that of finding oneself.

Now, I’m not particularly into the philosophy of personal identity, and I don’t know the literature at all. But this quote implies what I consider to be a quite mistaken point of view regarding identity. In order for it to make much sense, you must think there is something to find. What could this something possibly be?

One possibility is that there are facts about what kinds of people we are meant to be, and that we can find or discover these facts through introspection and life experience. I suspect that this view appeals to many religious folks, in particular those who think we were created by some divine intelligence to fulfill our parts in a cosmic plan. Thinking you are “meant” to have a certain kind of life, or that you have a “purpose” of some kind entails that there is some agent who has intended that kind of life for you or who has given you that purpose. I’m an atheist, and I don’t see any alternate explanation for how there could exist a fact about what kind of person I’m meant to be.

Less theistically loaded is the view that there are things going on in our Freudian subconscious that affect what kind of lives are best for us. For instance, you may have some previously unrecognized desire, or some conflict from your past that keeps you from having satisfying relationships now. But the idea that you can go digging into your subconscious to look for something, as if it were some locked up basement full of stuff just sitting there to be found, is dubious at best. The conscious and subconscious are all wrapped up together. There is no way to just find or uncover independently existing subconscious states and processes. Rather, when we engage in introspection, we are always at the same time engaging in a constructive and interpretive process that far exceeds a simple “finding.”

As such, I would like to see us adopt a new, better figure of speech: to make yourself (there’s actually an Incubus album and song by this name, if it sounds familiar). This implies a more accurate view of personal identity: that, to a large extent, we can choose (or at least actively endorse) the values, desires, roles and choices that comprise the core of who were are. The “make yourself” figure of speech also does a better job of casting us as active, rather than passive, in the quest to get meaning out of life.

So, if you’ve been struggling to “find yourself,” may I humbly suggest that you call off the search, and get hard at work on making yourself instead.


  • Robert wrote:

    Hmm…You seem to cast aside, rather quickly, the interpretation of finding yourself to be taken as introspection. So, I think I might accept a middle ground where you introspect on what plausible persons you can turn out to be and then make yourself one of those persons. I don’t think you can just make yourself into whatever you want to be. For instance, I think telling kids they can grow up to be the President some day or worse telling them they can be like Michael Jordan is incorrect. Those people turned out that way because that was a possibility based on their abilities.

    In short, I think you need to find some possible version of yourself before you start making it.

  • Oh yeah, that’s a really good point that I should have mentioned. I definitely, *definitely* don’t think that any occupation is possible. Telling kids that they can grow up to be anything they want is not only false but probably often damaging. I hope you don’t ever say that to your daughter! :-)

    I meant only that “make yourself” is a better description than “find yourself” of the life-long project that is ourselves. This project is surely constrained by external goods (a la Aristotle): physical and mental endowments, circumstances of birth, wealth, upbringing, etc etc.

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