4. Core Challenge #1:
Forming an Identity—Who am I and what is my worth?
"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are."
– e. e. cummings
“The Personal Challenge”
The teen years are where we start exploring this “who am I?” question, but it will be a question that can guide us throughout our lives and we often find that the answers change as we grow and have more and more experiences. We must discover who we are—our gifts, our values, what matters to us, what we like about ourselves and what we want to change or develop.
Answering these questions takes time and attention and experience and sometimes your answers change. The best approach is to relax and be curious—pay attention and talk with others. Asking the questions is the key. The answers will come.
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice."
– Steve Jobs; Stanford University commencement speech, 2005
There are lots of ways to approach this big challenge. We will use three:
Discovering My Personal Qualities
One key part of the foundation of an identity is the image we have of ourselves. There are always gaps between who we are and our ideal self, but that’s much of what life is about and why we go through multiple heroic journeys. We become increasingly whole, mature and capable—if we are paying attention and keep saying “yes” to personal development. This is true throughout life.
Because you haven’t lived that long yet there is often the sense that “I’m not really much yet—I’m still mostly a kid.” For the vast majority of teenagers—even though it might feel that way, it just isn’t true.
For example, if you skim the list below and check off the characteristics that you think apply to you, you may be surprised at how much of a self image you have. Please note: You don’t have to be the kindest, toughest or most resilient person in the world to check off those characteristics. Nor do you have to be the best athlete, writer or friend to check those off.
Someone who perseveres—I don’t give up
Resilient—can bounce back
A smart risk taker
A person with a good sense of humor
Someone who sees the good in others
Courageous (little or big ways—overcome fears to act)
A good athlete
A good dancer
A good singer
A good actor
A good artist
A good storyteller
A good joke teller
Someone who stands up for what’s right
A good writer
A good listener
A good care-taker
A good friend
A good son/daughter
A good brother/sister
A good student
The challenge is to become aware of and build on your strengths and commit to areas of growth. You may find a bunch of qualities that you want to get good at—that’s part of the journey—there is always more to discover and master.
Danger! A lot of characteristics go into composing an identity. A big danger is allowing one or two characteristics—good or bad—to define your identity. There is a danger in allowing one or two negative characteristics—“I’m overweight” or “I’m awkward in social settings”—to define you. It’s also dangerous to allow one or two positive characteristics—“I’m a star athlete” or “I’m one of the smartest in my class” to define you. We are a tapestry (or maybe a jigsaw puzzle) of characteristics and that is where our depth and resilience comes from.
A Note on Larger Social Factors. We are focusing on individual characteristics because this is a site about you as an individual on a heroic journey. However, there are some social factors that can have a major impact on identity. This is particularly true if you are part of a racial, ethnic or religious minority. The socio-economic status of your family can also have a significant impact on how you see yourself.
Discovering My Significance
“I want to live my life in such a way that when I get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, "aw shit, he's up!”
– Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience
This is another building block in the foundation of your identity. What is my significance? How do I matter? These questions surface big time during the teen years and the answers are often surprising – but elusive or not obvious. The heroic challenge is in looking at these questions directly and in accepting yourself as a person of significance—as a teenager.
The trap to avoid is thinking that you have to save the world in order to be of significance—to matter. In most cases our significance comes from lots of small actions. Sometimes they add up to big things and sometimes they are just small actions that matter. The problem is not in not doing the big things. The problem is in not doing the little things.
Look back at the list of characteristics and see how many of them offer the chance to be significant—to make a difference. Some of them can make a really big difference.
Just for example, you matter if you are:
- Someone who sees the good in others
- A good friend, brother/sister, son/daughter, neighbor
- A good performer/athlete/artist
You also matter if you:
- Pick up litter in your school or neighborhood
- Smile at people in school
- Encourage someone who is struggling
- Shop for a homebound neighbor
- Step in if someone is being bullied or put down
- Ask someone if they need help if they look confused, scared or hurt
- Form a club or play a leadership role
Those are just examples, but they matter. They matter to individuals and they matter to schools and communities. Some may feel natural and some may feel awkward at first.
Note. The really surprising thing is that you can be of significance—you can make a difference—even if you are struggling and simply trying to survive. It’s the little things.
Warning! Beware the “aw shucks” phenomenon. That’s when people say, “Aw shucks, I’m not really significant.” That sounds humble, but it’s really a way for people to avoid taking responsibility for their lives. It’s not bragging to say, “I am significant—I make a difference.”
Discovering My Purpose, Beliefs and Values
These are central questions for people that come alive in the teenage years. Like discovering our personal qualities and significance, they are questions that are before us our entire lives. They are a core part of our identity.
As with significance, answering these questions takes time and attention and experience and sometimes your answers change. The best approach is to relax and be curious—pay attention and talk with others. Asking the questions is the key. The answers will come.
"The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The meaning of life is to give your gift away."
– David Viscott
What is the purpose of my life? This is the big question and the answer may not be clear as a teenager. The question will, however, come alive during the teenage years and the key is to begin exploring what your answer(s) might be. The asking is more important than the answering, so be curious.
The stunning thing about this question is that people’s answers have such variety. If you asked 100 adults, you would probably get at least 95 different answers. My eighteen year old son has a website on the purpose of life and he has discovered this to be true.
“Trust yourself, then you will know how to live.”
– Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
What Do I Believe and Value? You will come to your teenage years with beliefs and values, but the natural challenge on the teenage journey is to challenge them given your new mental capabilities and drive to become your own person. This doesn’t mean a wholesale rejection of childhood beliefs and values. We usually keep most of the key beliefs and values, but can add some new ones, and let some go. The critical point is that they become truly your beliefs and values and can then guide you and support you in life.
It may not be a straight path as there is often a lot of experimenting and testing and confusion, which can last for quite a while. Sometimes we reject a belief or value and then later recommit to it. Remember, it’s a journey and the key is to reflect and explore and test.
Things You Might Value (Add values that are missing):
There is an amazing range of things that you might value. The following list is a little over the top, but it illustrates just how wide that range is—even though some of these terms are close in definition. It does show just how many things we might value about ourselves—or others. One of the worksheets asks you to identify the top 20 things you value, then the top ten and finally the top 5. That can be surprisingly hard, but it does provide an interesting profile.
Being the Best
Making a difference
"Try not to become a (person) of success but rather try to become a (person) of value."
– Albert Einstein
A Note on Sexual Identity/Orientation. This is an important part of everyone’s identity, but for teenagers that are wondering if they are gay or lesbian (or know that they are), this can be a central issue. It will play a significant part in the second big challenge on the journey—relationships and connections. It can be accompanied by a bewildering number of emotions—some positive and some negative.
Two things to keep in mind if you are wondering or finding that you are gay or lesbian. First, while your sexual orientation is a central part of your identity, it is not the only part of your identity, so keep it in context with your other characteristics, your sense of significance and your purpose and values. Second, while it is important for everyone to find companions and helpers and healers on the journey, it can be even more important for you because of all the swirling thoughts and emotions that come with having a minority sexual identity and orientation.
“Great minds have purpose, others have wishes. Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortunes; but great minds rise above them.”
– Washington Irving