Reader Request Week 2020 #3: Becoming More Ourselves
Posted on May 12, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
Who are we, really? Or as dchotin asks:
My grandmother used to say that as she grew older, she didn’t change, she just became more the way she was. I’ve always thought there’s a lot of truth to that – people don’t really change as they grow old, but aspects of their personalities become highlighted. Do you think that’s true? What do you see being highlighted in yourself?
I think your grandmother can be correct. But a lot depends on the person, and their choices.
Take, as an example, me. I very strongly feel a thread of continuity from the person I was at fifteen, and the person I am at 51 — the things I see in my personality as virtues are there at fifteen, waiting to be developed, and the things I see as flaws are also there, ready to be unleashed. At fifteen I was already observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative, and so on. All of it there, all basically ready for me to start making choices about which of these things I would put into play, and paying attention to which of these things would get me what I wanted.
At 51, I am still observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative (and so on), and I am also the sum of my choices about how to use all of those tools, both positive and negative. I have to say that broadly speaking, the choices I made have turned out pretty well for me: I got to be who I wanted to be when I grew up, and getting to be who I wanted to be when I grew up did not turn out to be a curse. And I think that the people who knew me at 15 can (and in fact, do) look at me now and say, yup, we could see the person you are now in the person you were then. I’m me, as I’ve always been me, just refined.
Which is great — except that I’m also aware that, had I made different choices, or if my life circumstances had been a little different, my life now could be wildly different in a number of ways — and yet the people who knew me at fifteen could still look at me and say, yup, we could see who you are now in who you were then. All the ingredients of who I am would still have been there. I simply would have mixed them differently, and gotten different results.
So your grandma is right. But she’d largely be right no matter what would have happened in the course of a person’s life — different circumstances require different aspects of one’s personality to come to the fore. Barring trauma that materially changes aspects of one’s personality, we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment. This last sentence is, shall we say, a grossly oversimplified metaphor for life. But I think you get what I’m aiming for.
I do often think about how my life would be different — and how I would be different — if certain things had turned out differently. Who would I be now if I had a stable childhood? If I had not gone to the high school or college that I did? If I had not gotten the first job I did? If Krissy and I had never met? If I had written a thriller instead of a science fiction book when I first sat down to write a novel? In every case, who I’d become then would not be the person I am now — but the person I would be is someone I think could still see a continuity to that fifteen-year-old me, and probably see the person he was now as, if not inevitable, at least highly probable.
Which is to say that out in the multiverse, there are many different iterations of me, each of them a lot like me, all logically derived from the same 15-year-old me, but different enough that I strongly suspect you would be able to tell us apart after a few minutes of conversation. It would be fascinating to get to meet some of them and chat with them and see how their version of life had gone up to this point. If some of them were novelists, we could totally swap books, and then suddenly all of us would have a decade or so of new novels to release without having to work at it! I like this plan. Because, remember, I’m lazy.
I will also note that at age 51, I’m not done with this — I am still making choices and I’m still deciding which parts of my personality to put to the front, and that will have an effect on who I am at 52, and at 60, and at 75 and so on (provided I live to these ages). I am reasonably cognizant of my virtues and also of my vices at this point in my life, so that’s nice. But that doesn’t mean I’m always going to make good choices, because I’m human, and you know how they are. I’m lazy and be petty and cranky and mean and tired and occasionally dimwitted just like anyone else. I’m not perfect, and I know that about myself.
Often, when I am confronted with choices I have to make, or wonder how to be in the world, this is what I do: I cosplay as a better version of myself, and choose my actions accordingly. This has the short-term advantage of generally helping me to make better choices, and the long-term advantage of, if you pretend to be a better version of yourself long enough, the chances of you actually becoming that better version are somewhat higher.
And then when you do, you can look back and see that who you are is who you’ve always been. Just, as your grandmother said, more so.
(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)
As an addendum, I want to note that I think people of any personality can learn skills and habits that can help them do things that their personalities don’t generally incline them toward, so if you think I’m making an argument here that personality is destiny or some such, yeah, no, I’m not doing that. We’re thinking creatures, we have ways to adapt and compensate for the things we think we lack (including, aside from learning new skills, having partners who are good at the things we are not, and vice-versa — this explains a lot about me and Krissy).
My father had a relative who liked to say (probably in Yiddish), “The older you get, the more so.” Covers it all, really.
Wow. I think this is pretty profound and important and should be taught in schools.
“Often, when I am confronted with choices I have to make, or wonder how to be in the world, this is what I do: I cosplay as a better version of myself, and choose my actions accordingly. This has the short-term advantage of generally helping me to make better choices, and the long-term advantage of, if you pretend to be a better version of yourself long enough, the chances of you actually becoming that better version are somewhat higher.”
A solid reflection. I’m just a little ahead of you in age, as I turn 53 in three months. I was more of a blank canvas at 15 as I didn’t know at all who I was. I do now, for sure. But as I try to remember being 15 I see very strong common threads in who I am now and who I was then. It’s as if I’m getting to know that 15-year-old now who didn’t know himself then.
“Barring trauma that materially changes aspects of one’s personality, we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment.”
Nice. That one goes in my quotes database.
Great question dchotin!
For myself, I know I’ve been happiest when i’ve held to, or reclaimed, parts of myself that were important to me when young. I have always been a writer and a science geek, still am. A strong love of social justice, and willingness to fight for it, remains. And I had a strong love and caring for animals when I was younger, that has evolved into veganism and vegan activism.
I also thank my lucky stars I got into sf at a young age. I credit it with my optimism and hope (even the dystopic sf at least presaged a future.); also my courage (artistic and otherwise) and my adaptability to change. Also, my vision and imagination are immeasurably expanded because of it.
One of the amazing things in my life (61 years) has been watching sf go from marginalized to centralized.
The 15-year-old me made a life decision to pursue destiny in a martial direction after high school. I attribute my ability to accomplish difficult things as a direct consequence of that decision. Yes, there are a few things I’d like to counsel my younger self about, like keeping Faith, but hey, human time is as linear as it is limited. And things have worked out pretty well.
Whoa! And RIGHT after I posted my comment, as if the universe itself were smiling on it, I encounter this:
What a concept for a novel! John Scalzi meets the iterations of himself that exist in the multiverse! And….Hey, it’s a concept, I am not a writer
Sarah Pinsker already wrote that story and it’s excellent.
Brings to mind my favorite line from “Under the Tuscan Sun”: “Any arbitrary turning along the way and I would be elsewhere; I would be different.”
As someone in my late 60s I’ve attended a number of class reunions over the years, both HS and college. My observation is that for all the people I knew then with extraordinary few exceptions I could draw a line from the people they were then to the people they are now. People changed, but they changed in way that made sense and were in keeping with their general personality and life’s arc.
I swear I met an alternate universe John Scalzi at a Santa Fe Subway in 2017.The poor guy was probably creeped out by me watching him for clues about his identity.
Honored you chose to answer my question :). I like this answer and it definitely gives me some food for thought. I will say that I think my grandma was saying it more in terms of her becoming ‘old’; as someone who always had strong opinions on things, she became just plain stubborn in her 80s and 90s, for example. But this: “we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment” is absolutely right, and a great way to state it. Fully planning to borrow for my own use (with appropriate credit, of course).
As an identical twin, I get to observe almost what I would have ended up with, had I made slightly different choices.
Anyone who knows my sister and I can tell us apart… as long as they know there are two of us. But our Venn’s overlap significantly.
She’s going back to school to get her Master’s in library science after over a decade working at libraries… and I use her as my alpha reading for my not-yet-published writing.
We joke that it’s like me reading my own MS, only without having written it. There’s a lot of context and ways of thinking that don’t need explaining or thinking for her to get, so while it still might need work to convey all of my ideas to someone ELSE clearly, but she can tell me if the story works.
I used to be a painfully shy introvert, afraid someone would find out I’m an imposter. I also used to think I was smart. I’m a lot less of both of those now. I don’t get nervous presenting at a scientific conference any more, and I know some smart people and I’m not one of those. Maybe I was smart in K-12, but when I went to college everybody there had been smart in K-12. That required an image adjustment. Though I still prefer to stay at home and read, and I hate crowds and noise, I no longer live to avoid those things.
So I became less of what I was, not more. Actually, quite a lot less.
I knew I had read that story, but couldn’t remember the author. Thank you for reminding me! The story is so much fun.
At 15 I was sure that I would be a world famous writer.
At 17 I joined the Navy.
At 20 married
At 24 I had 2 children
At 25 divorced
At 25 out of Navy
At 74 looking back not all the choices are ours to make. Needless to say I am not world famous writer.
I looking forward have my home on top of a mountain
My health. Two exceptinal children of whom I am very proud. My son is living my dream he claims to be lazy and grouchy but he is self motivated enough to do the work and write stories that you all seem to like. He is an awesome father husband and writer. I am content knowing I and his mother gave you years of enjoyable reading. Oh bye the way the lazy grouchy parts he got from me.
I believe we should all be open to learning and, dread, changing. I stil challenge my 87v year old mother when get bad boundaries get her into and she claims “I’m 87 I’m not changing now”.
All of us have choices. Do we go on as we are mired in our habits or do we wipe off that mirror and take a good look at the reflection?
Bah – I’m talking to myself at this point. Shut up, Hope. Go change or just shut up.
Thanks for the therapy, John.