The Importance of Breaking Free of … Yourself

By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

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.

That’s why the Chinese philosophers would have found our penchant for thinking of the self as singular and true, something we dig deep to discover within, as incredibly dangerous. We think we know ourselves, what makes us tick: that we tend to blow up over small things, or that tests make us anxious; that we are perfectionists or slobs. But when we define who we are, we are all too often labeling ourselves according to these passive patterns, unhealthy ruts, and automatic rote reactions.

Our philosophers’ ideas were supremely doable. One of the most important things they suggested was to engage in rituals, of all things.

“But how can that be?” you ask. “How could rituals be liberating?”

Engaging in rituals in a Confucian sense, though, is transformative. Confucian rituals — or “as if” rituals — come from the small conventional things we do all the time. When you pass a friend on the street and smile and say hi as if you weren’t just stressing over a bad exam grade you got, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual . When you’re tempted to roll your eyes over something your annoying cousin said, but instead respond as if what she said was insightful, you’re engaging in an as-if ritual.

Yes, these moments go against our authentic, true feelings. They can feel fake, or like we’re being nice for politeness’ sake.

But Confucius saw value in such rituals — if we do them ritually, and not rotely —precisely because they go against your authentic, true feelings and thus have the potential to allow you to become a different, and a better, person for a brief moment. The more you consciously engage in such moments the more you cultivate yourself. You train yourself not to always act true to yourself, in order to behave better.

And such pedestrian moments throughout the day are not the only chance we have to break from who we really are. You can also actively choose other ways to go against your idea of what is really you.

As you grew up your parents, and you, paid attention to what you were good at, and you learned how to play to your strengths. By now you know that you like videogaming or museums, math or music, you hate track but you love soccer. You learned to narrow down and focus on your interests and strengths, to choose your classes and extracurriculars carefully and plan things out in order to move efficiently towards the future.

But by focusing down on what you are good at or what you love in order to hone your strengths and interests, you ended up inadvertently doing something else: training yourself to cut out other things that could lead you in all sorts of unprecedented, unpredictable directions. Instead of being directed and efficient, you end up closing yourself off from new experience.

The way out is to deliberately go against the focused, the narrow, or what you love. Intentionally seek out things you don’t love, aren’t good at. Pay attention to interests you think you have no time for; choose experiences precisely because they are so not you.

The point is not to develop well roundedness, nor is it to develop expertise in a new area. The point is to get in the habit of expanding your perspective and expanding your life. It’s to practice constantly engaging in anything that that forces you away from the constraints that come from living as a singular, authentic self. You’re opening yourself up to living life as a series of breaks: breaks from your true feelings, your true interests, your true strengths.

The end result of all of this? As you cultivate your ability to break from yourself, you will continue to grow and change. As you cultivate your goodness, it slowly becomes second nature and radiates outward. Your kindness, rooted in the mundane and everyday, extends from the family and friends around you to town, region, nation, world.

That’s why our Chinese philosophers would say: don’t discover who you are, let alone embrace what you find. Instead of choosing self-acceptance, choose self-cultivation. Instead of embracing yourself, overcome yourself. This is not just how you become a flourishing adult. It is the best way to create a flourishing world.

This post has been adapted from the authors’ new book, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” on sale now from Simon & Schuster.

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