I’ll NOT have what you’re having

Has this ever happened to you?

You go out to dinner with some friends. After picking up the menu, your eyes make a first pass. You immediately pick the one you like. Let’s say it’s chicken parmesan. Yes, tonight is definitely a chicken parmesan kind of night. You close the menu. The waiter approaches. He starts making the rounds, taking orders from each person.

“Lamb burger.”

“Steak salad.”

“Chicken parmesan!”

Except that wasn’t you speaking. That was the person sitting next to you, ordering the same thing you had wanted. Oh crap! You can’t order the same thing! You bust open the menu again and frantically scan for something else.

“Uhh … uh – Turkey sandwich!”

Well, that wasn’t the bird of your choice, but it was your turn to say something, and you couldn’t order the same thing as the last person! Enjoy your turkey sandwich, wimp.

Yes, I’m this person. I do this all the time. When I’m out with my boyfriend, I can get even more ridiculous.

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“Don’t follow the crowd” we’re told. “Be an individual!” While I completely agree with these sentiments, there is a spectrum where “belonging” falls on one end and “individuality” falls on the other. The issue arises when we go too far in one direction or the other. For me personally, I tend to latch on to individuality to the point where I fear conformity. I want to feel unique, special, in a category of my own. I don’t want to be perceived as a follower, just doing what everyone anyone else is doing. Perhaps it’s just one or two specific situations where the mere thought of uttering “me too” triggers a wave of discomfort. For me, it can be as silly as ordering the same dish as the last person. Admittedly, though, I also drive some other decisions based not on what I can get, but on what I feel I can’t. Does this seem like a ridiculously far-fetched segue? Sorry, but this post isn’t actually about dinner.

When I was young, I saw my sister as “the charismatic one.” So I decided I was going to be “the studious one.” Screw social life! I will make all As and get into a top Ivy League college! (Spoiler alert: Neither of those things happened.)

When I played MMOs (massive multi-player online games) in high school, I gravitated towards the least-played class. Who cares if I really wanted to be a rogue. Not very many people were playing archer. I want to be different, dammit!

Even my recent passion for fitness and health technologies at least partly stemmed from a desire to separate myself from my friends, who I felt were smarter and savvier than me, who I felt had already found their “thing.” If I could be “the fit one” or “the strong one,” then that would make me different, and by extension, more valuable.

The charismatic one, the smart one, the fit one … what are we, the Spice Girls? I was considering talent, passion, and expertise as finite resources. My mindset was akin to “If it’s his/her thing, then it can’t be my thing anymore.” I was making decisions by process of elimination.

Aspirations are not bound to a zero sum game. Someone else excelling at cooking doesn’t make you a worse cook and vice versa. Why can’t cooking be both our things? Why can’t we both enjoy chicken parmesan? Sometimes I must remind myself of this and pry my grabby hands away from that mindset of scarcity. Instead of process of elimination, how about process of accumulation? What if there’s plenty of aspirational goodness to go around?

Challenge 1: Do the thing you want, especially if those around you are already doing it. Perceive this Mary Poppins bag of talents, passions, and expertise as limitless. If someone else adds their mark, remind yourself that it doesn’t detract from yours and that your mark doesn’t detract from theirs.
Challenge 2: When you start to notice more people sharing “your thing” to the point where discomfort creeps up, perhaps it’s time to shift the values mindset from “individuality” to “belonging.” Neither one is better than the other. I believe both are necessary at different times depending on context, though if you know you have a harder time embracing the “belonging” part, that’s something worth dabbling in once in a while. Balance as always nice, yeah?

Acknowledging that this isn’t a zero sum game is a start, but there’s another, arguably more serious issue to account for as well. Neghar Fonooni summarized it excellently in her talk at the 2016 Women’s Fitness Summit:

“It’s dangerous to define ourselves by any one thing. What if that thing gets taken away?” – Neghar Fonooni

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of defining ourselves by some one thing we believe we alone can excel at in our hunt for identity. For instance, you discover lifting. You love lifting, so now you want to get stronger. Suddenly you feel like you’re “the strong one” in your friend group, and you start to define yourself by your lift numbers. When they go down, you feel like a failure. You start to fear losing grip on the activity that you’ve somehow mistaken for identity. What if tomorrow, you suffer a debilitating injury and can never lift again? If you had believed that “strong” is the only thing that makes you special (read: valuable), then what’s now left of me? Uh, did I say me? I meant you.

Challenge 3: Focus on what you naturally gravitate towards doing rather than who you think you should be. Do you say “I find myself doing this and reading about that a lot. Therefore, I must enjoy this?” Or do you say “I should be this. Therefore, I must do that?” Leigh Peele dives into this a lot more in her glorious podcast – Episode 8: Who Am I If Not.
Challenge 4: Mix and match multiple interests so that no one thing defines you. Or pick what you’re good at and love doing and try to use it in more than one way. In the talent, passion, and expertise departments, I personally think the mish-mashers & tweakers shine brighter than the purebreds. Balance is so nice, yeah?

Do you operate by process of elimination or process of accumulation? There’s plenty of chicken parmesan to go around!

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