Monday, February 24, 2014


There is simply not enough money on this planet to make me go back to my teens. In my teens, I was far too preoccupied with trying to be perfect, and I measured my worth in academic grades. I also spent far too much time and energy seeking the approval of others and worrying that I was letting them down or wasn't good enough for them. I was like my golden retriever Daisy, who just wants everyone to love her...even the mean schnauzer who bit her butt when she was a puppy.

The difference between me and Daisy, however, is a big ol' frontal lobe of a brain that truly screws me up every bit as much as it helps me. I'm not alone in being screwed up, either. Our frontal lobes mislead us and confuse us, make us think we want one thing when we want another, lead us to speculate with wild inaccuracy what others are thinking, and generally make us behave in ways we (and those around us) simply cannot understand.

Daisy, bless her heart, doesn't suffer from such a burden. She is what she is, and that's all she is. And we love her for it. Dogs are simple. We humans have to go and complicate things, don't we?

Teenagers and young adults, whose frontal lobes experience a firestorm of hormonal chaos, have the deck stacked against them as they try to figure out who they are. They try on all sorts of costumes, play all sorts of roles, randomly vacillate between characters in ways that render them hopelessly lost and drive their parents insane.

"Who am I, really?" they ask themselves. As if the answer were a destination on a map, a goal at the end of high school, a style of clothing, or a trophy on their shelf. "Who am I, really?" The answer to that question is more a journey of growth and change rather than a destination. And that journey can be uncomfortable, painful, sacrificial, joyous...all at once.

I had no idea who I was in my teens, but I sure thought I did. Typically, I defined myself by career choice, and when I found out that women were discouraged from entering the sciences, I decided I would be a scientist.

You say I can't be a scientist because I have ovaries? Well, I'll show you!

Forget that my aptitude lay in language and literature, forget that my math scores came more from persistence and hard work than true talent, forget that I'd had my nose buried in novels since birth. I was going to be a scientist!

Fortunately, my freshman year in college--and a spectacularly disastrous semester of organic chemistry--cured me of my delusions of scientific grandeur. I still remember the day I woke up and smelled the acetone. I had a lab in the Gross Chemistry Building at Duke, and the building, for the first time, struck me as cold and vaguely hostile, with its white concrete walls, black marble floors, narrow slit windows, and pasty-faced graduate students walking around with perma-frowns on their faces, deliberately avoiding eye contact.

Gross Chemistry Building, Duke University

In the midst of our experiment, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing and--more importantly--didn't really care. Whoa!!! When had I not cared about learning something? What a strange and uncomfortable feeling it was, like wearing borrowed clothes.

Later that same day, I had to go to the English Department offices on the third floor of Allen Building on Duke's famously beautiful Main Quad.

Allen Building, Duke University
In which of these two building would you prefer to spend your time?

I thought so.

As I walked the pseudo-gothic halls of the third floor, a professor I didn't know made eye contact, smiled, and said, "Beautiful day, isn't it?" His kind, warm face sealed my determination to ditch chemistry as a major and concentrate on English. I belonged in that building, belonged in discussions of imagery and allusion in Milton's "L'Allegro" or Eliot's "Four Quartets." Studying literature wasn't a role to play; it was acting on parts of myself that were genuine, real, honest.

I never regretted the time spent pursuing science, though. A part of me finds many aspects of biology, chemistry, and physics interesting, and I still read popular science books and watch educational television. But words, language, literature...those things were (and still are) authentically me.

What drives us to project ourselves into characters whose costumes don't fit us? How do we tease apart this person "we think we're supposed to be" from the person we really are? How do we find our authentic way forward?

These days, in my late 40s, I find myself committed to Brene Brown's definition of authenticity. I work hard at letting go of that person I think I should be and actively embrace the person I am...someone who cannot be summed up in a simple resume. That daily practice keeps me on my path forward, even if I occasionally veer off into the weeds.

Truth be told, every last one of us ends up in the weeds...repeatedly. We all play dress-up and pretend to be something we're not. If we're smart, though, we learn from those mistakes. We grow from them. Taking a detour to the sciences wasn't authentically me, but the experience is a part of who I authentically am. I learned from that detour. I wouldn't trade it--or any of the other detours of my life's journey--for anything.

Still, I'm glad I found my path eventually. If nothing else, it lead me straight out of my teens so I never have to go there again.

What a relief.

How are you finding your authentic self? What mistakes and detours taught you that lesson of authenticity? Do you feel like your path has purpose and meaning that are authentic to you? Do you wish you'd done things differently?  


  1. sigh...I'm 40+ and I need a machete!

    1. I feel that way at times, too, Karen! Wouldn't it be nice if life had an easy button?

  2. Haha - love the machete comment! But I also love how eloquently Susan has written about this topic. Beautiful prose. Thank you.

  3. Susan, may I share this post with one of my developmental college classes? We're about to discuss the idea of being open to following a passion rather than settling for a job, and you've summed it up so nicely. Thanks!


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