Is against the Dragon of Sameness.
A famous poet by the name of E.E. Cummings once said that to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.
After 13 Billion years and all the trouble the Universe went through to make every star, every planet, every snowflake, and every one of us unique, it is shocking – and ultimately pointless - why some people want to be something they are not.
In ancient Greece, from where the Western world got most of its stories of what it is to be human, there was a temple, high up on Mount Parnassus in the town of Delphi, called the Temple of Apollo. It was named after the Greek god of archery, music, dance, poetry, healing, and of truth and the practice of prophecy, or predicting the future. Think of an old lady inside a small and dimly-lit circus tent looking into a crystal ball.
People believed that in this temple lived a priestess, by the name of Pythia, who could answer any question and predict the future. They called her the Oracle of Delphi, and she was, without doubt, the most powerful woman in the classic world.
Carved on the walls of the temple were two very important rules on how to behave and think as a human being: Nothing in Excess, and Know Thyself. The first one refers to the Life Force of Temperance which we’ll examine later. The second rule is the one which answers the question of what makes you, uniquely you.
To answer this question, we need to take another trip. Only this time, we won’t be traveling 13 Billion years back in time, but just 9 months before you were born.
Here’s how that worked.
9 months before you were born, your mom released a tiny capsule inside her body carrying a set of 23 instructions, called chromosomes, which make your mother the person she is. Think of it as a deck of 23 cards. When she and your father decided to have you, your Dad released a huge army of brave swimmers in your mother’s body with one challenge: to see who could swim the fastest and be the one to first arrive at your mother’s capsule and hop on board. More than 200 million of these daring swimmers would compete against the others for the chance of making you. Like your mother’s capsule, each of these swimmers carried one deck of 23 cards with the instructions which make your father the person he is. Once the winning swimmer hopped on board, the two decks of cards got shuffled into one set of 46 cards with the unique instructions that would begin assembling you.
By the time you finish reading this sentence 25 babies will have been born across the world. That’s 4 babies every second! Before your mom’s capsule and your dad’s champion swimmer met, each of their original deck of 23 cards was ordered in a special way (different every time) which is why, if you have siblings, you'll note many differences in appearance and behavior. Even so-called identical twins are not exactly alike.
So there you were, 9 months before your birth, in a cell smaller than a speck of dust, starting to be assembled, following 46 bits of instruction like a software program, getting you ready for your unique journey to life.
If you want proof that not two humans are alike, turn over your hands and examine your fingerprints. They are the unique scribbles of your DNA which will rat on you if you decide to commit a crime. Like fingerprints, there is something else that gets written in you… something no other human has in common with you… something you will carry for the rest of your life, and that is your temperament, or the essential qualities that will determine a great part of your personality.
Are you an introvert, or someone that likes to hang out with a large group of friends?
Are you one that likes to take charge, or one that prefers to follow?
More cautious, or more of a risk-taker?
Quiet and calm, or loud and active?
Moody, or always cheerful?
First to raise your hand in class, or the one that sits way in the back hoping the teacher won’t call on you?
Are you afraid of change, or don’t mind it?
More of a thinker or a doer?
Organized, or kind of a mess?
Whichever side you fall on, these essential qualities are part of who you are, and if you don’t take the time to understand and accept them as the fingerprints of your personality you will make a ton of mistakes in life, like working at the wrong jobs or marrying a person who is not right for you.
I did not know about this and paid a heavy price.
I’ll now tell you the story so you don’t make the same mistake.
I was born in Guatemala, a tiny country south of Mexico where half the people are natives. It is smaller than the state of New York, yet it has thirty volcanos, many of them constantly active, awake… rumbling day and night, and spitting fire, rocks, ash, and red-hot lava. The place is rugged. It makes you feel wild.
A large part of its territory is covered with in tropical rainforests. Up north, you’ll find ancient pyramids breaking through thick layers of steaming jungle. Built by the Maya - an ancient and advanced civilization - these pyramids are as old as the age of thirty-two grandfathers if you add them all up and they all happen to be seventy years old which is almost impossible. From the top of the pyramids, the jungle stretches out in every direction as far as the eye can see, and is filled with stealthy jaguars, chattering and howling monkeys, poisonous snakes, hairy tarantulas, butterflies, and tropical birds.
My country is beautiful. It truly takes your breath away. When you grow up, you should go there. In fact, I want you to travel the world. It’s vast and magnificent, full of adventure, exotic lands, and many different people speaking over six thousand distinct languages. I’d tell you to go right now but suspect you are still too young. How old are you, anyway? Eight? Twelve? Never mind.
Growing up in such a wild place helped me develop a powerful imagination and a sense of adventure. The other thing that helped was not having but one black-and-white television with only three channels that did not start until late in the afternoon. One of my favorite shows was ‘Zorro’. He was my greatest hero.
Zorro was an intrepid man who wore a black costume, a flowing black cape, black hat, mask, and gloves. He rode his shiny black horse, Tornado, and was an expert with the sword and whip. Every time Zorro rescued someone, he would carve the letter Z on walls or trees with his sword to let everyone know whodunnit. The coolest thing about Zorro is that he never killed anyone. The other cool thing is that he loved to read and dance, which I also loved and still do.
Zorro treated women with respect, the poor with kindness, and children with tenderness. He wasn’t soft by any stretch, just gentle, like Gandhi. He would avoid fights whenever he could, but if he had to fight, he was tough as steel. You wouldn’t want to mess with Zorro.
Zorro was shy and sensitive like I am. He was an introvert, just like me, which probably explains why I wanted to be a writer ever since I was 8.
Because I am shy, short, and have a long nose, I was constantly teased at school… “Pinocchio” “Midget”... that sort of stuff. Since I really didn’t like to fight, you know what I did? (of course you don’t, you weren’t there). What I did was make friends with some of the tallest and strongest seniors who rode the bus with me. They became my protectors. When the bullies at school saw me walking toward them followed by my defending giants, they would run.
Besides protecting me, these older guys taught me one important lesson: to not take myself too seriously; to make fun of myself sometimes (like Hideyoshi), and not be so easily offended. Nobody is perfect, they said. Who decides what’s perfect or beautiful anyway?
In some places in Africa it is considered beautiful for girls to wear wooden plates embedded in their lower lip. The Dinka tribe in Sudan use ash, cow manure, and urine to paint their faces. Why not? Why must everyone look the same or like the same things?
In other parts of the world, people eat stuff like fried crickets, crispy tarantulas, and jellied moose nose. I’m not making this up, and I’m sure some of those people would think French-fries and Fruit Roll-ups are gross.
My house in Guatemala was surrounded by very old and tall avocado trees. Every afternoon, when I returned from school, I would throw my book-bag on my bed and run up to the roof. This was not an ordinary roof. It was mostly flat and as large as two basketball courts. Think of it as a magical playground.
One of the avocado trees was relatively easy to climb. One day, twenty-feet up, I discovered a thick branch, covered in spongy moss, on which I could lie flat and rest my head on its massive trunk. I decided to make it my hideout so slung a rope over a nearby branch and tied a cardboard box to the other end down below. Thereon, before climbing, I’d load the box with snacks, my favorite books, a notebook, and a few chewed pencils, and, once aloft, straddling the thick branch, I’d hoist the box up and tie the rope so it wouldn’t slide down. I would spend the entire afternoon, up on my secret hideout, reading and writing stories.
Remembering those moments, I can now tell why writing was the thing I was meant to do all my life, because, when doing so, I didn’t feel time passing by. I was like a fish in a stream, flowing inside my element. It was the thing that most closely fitted my temperament.
I got the idea for one of my stories from listening to a record which told the tale of one Professor Challenger who trekked across a remote jungle searching for living proof of dinosaurs. In my story, I had a group of boys dive into a clear-water sinkhole and swim all the way to the center of Earth. Don’t ask me how the boys in my story managed to hold their breath for as long as it took them to reach the center of Earth or how they eventually landed on firm ground covered in jungle and roaming with dinosaurs. They just did. The boys in my story had run away from home hoping to escape from their ordinary world just like I wanted to do.
Like a ship seeking shelter in a cove, waiting for the dangerous storms out in the open sea to calm down before heading out again, I sought refuge up on that old tree. A place to where I could escape from the chaos down below. My parents fought all the time and I was afraid. Afraid they’d divorce and turn my world upside down. Twenty feet above it all, cradled by the sturdy branch of the old tree and concealed from view by a thick veil of emerald green leaves, I could disappear for at least a few hours and lose myself in the fantastical stories I was reading and writing. The grownup world seemed scary to me and I did not want to join their crazy world.
The storms never passed. They kept raging for years until my parents split up. But before that happened, the half-crazy ogre I told you about earlier took me down from the tree and forced me to grow up before I was ready. That ogre was my father. He suffered from a mental illness called bipolar disorder which makes people act really weird one moment, and, then, almost instantly, be really sad and depressed. The day Dad took me to that horrible place with the grownup monsters dressed in expensive suits and soldier uniforms was probably the last time I climbed the tree.
When I turned twelve, I also forgot about Zorro. My new hero was Michael Corleone who was head of a mafia family in a movie called ‘The Godfather’. The mafia is an organized group of thugs… a gang, basically. Michael was powerful and ruthless. I wanted to be like him so that everyone would be afraid of me without needing giants for protection.
Later on, my other favorite was a guy by the name of Gordon Gekko. He didn’t look like a gecko, that was just his name. Gordon was a movie character who always wore a suit and tie, was really greedy, and made tons of money trading shares on Wall Street. He even had his own private jet.
I wanted that, even though my temperament was not meant for it.
I thought if I could only have Michael’s power and Gordon’s money, I would become a real man. What I didn’t know at the time was that while these guys were feared, envied, and admired, they were never loved. Big mistake. Huge. But it took me forty years (half a grandfather plus five) to find out. That’s a long time. So long, that my hair was almost white when I figured it out. No one ever helped me understand my temperament. No one warned me about the Dragon of Sameness.
As I grew older, I began to think writing was not what I was supposed to do and that it wouldn’t make me tons of money, like Gordon. My middle brother (only two years older than I am) was becoming a businessman, wore a suit and tie, bought and sold gold, and talked about millions. At the dinner table, I remember how our father used to look at him with admiration while I couldn’t get him to pay attention to me because I did not speak the language of millions. That hurt. I became envious and thought the only way to get my father’s attention was to be exactly like my brother. So I forgot all about the old tree, my hideout, and about writing stories, and became a businessman too. I became all serious and wore a suit and tie which fit really tight making it hard to breathe.
I did end up making tons of money like Gordon. I even owned my own airplane! But you know what? I wasn’t happy, so made everyone around me unhappy, including my Dad. By then, I was married, had two daughters, and was working all the time. So much so that I rarely had time to be with my family. Because I wasn’t being true to myself... wasn’t doing what I was born to do, I ended up losing everything.
Years later, I finally understood that even if I would’ve changed my face to look exactly like Gordon or my brother; had I dressed or spoken like they did, I would never be them. What’s worse, I would never be me. I realized that unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be happy no matter what I had.
Now I have very little money. I don’t own a house or a car. All my stuff – mostly books - can easily fit inside two suitcases. But I am luckier than all the multi-billionaires out there because I know one thing they don’t: I know I have enough. I learned that one can never have enough of what one does not need in the first place.
An ancient Indian book says it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly.
To understand what this means, I’ll tell you a story of a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with himself and his position in life. It’s an old Chinese folktale.
One day the stonecutter passed a wealthy merchant’s house. Through the open gateway, he saw many fine possessions and important visitors. “How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stonecutter. He became very envious and wished that he could be like the merchant.
To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever imagined, but was envied and detested by those less wealthy than he was. Soon, a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow before the procession. “How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish I could be a high official!”
Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around. It was a hot summer day, so the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence. “How powerful the sun is!” he thought. “I wish I could be the sun!”
Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and laborers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth so that his light could no longer shine on everything below. “How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish I could be a cloud!”
Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force and realized that it was the wind. “How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish I could be the wind!”
Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, feared and hated by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it – a huge, towering rock. “How powerful that rock is!” he thought. “I wish I could be a rock!”
Then he became the rock, more powerful than anything else on earth. But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the hard surface and felt himself being changed. “What could be more powerful than I, the rock?” he thought.
He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why, or what for. Way too many people never discover this because they are too busy thinking of all the things they want to be, instead of what they can be. For instance, while I never dreamt of becoming a famous basketball player when I was young, had I done so, I would’ve never been capable of becoming one, not only because I am too short, but because I can’t run or pivot fast enough.
Many people, instead of trusting their intuition… rather than paying attention to what feels right, place their trust on what others tell them about who they should be. So when they fail, or feel like they’ve failed, it just means that they did not live up to someone else’s idea of success.
I think it would be better if everyone decided for themselves what success means. That way, the target would not be shifting all the time. It’s just like fashion. One day ‘they’ tell us what we’re supposed to wear, and as soon as obey them, they suddenly change their minds and say “No! Not that anymore! This is what you must now wear to be cool and fashionable,” and we all run around like idiots trying to please them. Who are these people anyway? Where do they hide? I picture them sitting high up in a mountain laughing at how dumb we are for paying attention to what they say, filling our closets with stuff we don’t need.
Think of the world as a giant orchestra with its string section (violins, cellos, etc.), the woodwinds (flutes, clarinets), the brass section (trumpets, trombones, tubas), and the percussion section (drums, cymbals, triangles and tambourines). Each and every one of us has a particular place in the world; a unique instrument to play. We can only play the role that best suits our nature and capacities.
I think the dumbest question a grownup can ask a kid is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Using the word “What” at the beginning of the question automatically implies that the kid is a thing, instead of a person. It sends the kid the message that the only way he can be, is to turn himself into someone else. The best answer to that dumb question is “Myself.”
The right way to begin that question is with the word “Who.”
Who do you want to be when you grow up?
You cannot answer that question with “I want to be Gordon Gekko” because that’s impossible. There is only room for one Gekko in the Universe.
Asking “Who” is the same as asking “What kind of person do you want to be as you grow up?” And here is where it is useful to pull out your list of heroes and the qualities which makes you admire them. You’re not trying to be them, but like they are. Big difference.
A good follow-up question is:
“How would you like to live your life?”
Imagine you’re 70 years-old, sitting outdoors by an open fire surrounded by your grandchildren eagerly waiting for you to tell them how you lived your life. Would you rather tell them a story or give them an explanation? Answer that, and you will have found the secret ingredient to a wonderful life.
Would you rather have little else to tell them than “this and that happened to me and there wasn’t much I could do about it, so, yah, that’s what happened, and then I got old and tired and there’s not much I can do now and… the end?”
Or would you prefer telling your grandchildren an adventure story… the true story of the many dangers and challenges you faced and overcame, the dragons you slayed, your travels, the places you explored, the people you rescued, and all the things you learned along the way?
I can almost picture them – far in the distant future - looking up at you in wide-eyed admiration, not missing a word you say, calling you a “hero,” a “legend,” learning from your wisdom and getting excited as they imagine their own adventures.
So, how do you want to live your life?
Would you want to do something you love even if it doesn’t make you a millionaire, or would you rather do something you hate and be rich?
Do you want to work long hours even if it means not being able to spend time with your kids?
Would you rather have a million fans you never meet in person, or one very good friend you can turn to when you’re sad or in trouble?
Would you like to own a lot of stuff you have to worry about, or just stuff you need?
Do you want to be Gordon Gekko, or yourself?
Choices are for men. Wanting everything is like hoping to find a pink elephant in the jungle. When making choices, it helps thinking about what you will gain, rather than what you stand to lose.
Be warned, though. Choosing to be yourself will be the hardest battle. Many people will reject you - for what you look like, how you think, what you say, or how you choose to live your life.
We all want to be liked and belong. We all want to feel included and validated. I get it. However, some kids go to the craziest and most dangerous extremes to earn people’s approval, like joining a gang or even changing the way they look through plastic surgery. Here’s the thing though… as President Lincoln once said: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
And the one person you can never, ever fool, is yourself.
So, instead of seeking people’s approval, seek their acceptance for who you are.
You have no idea how lucky you are that I caught you just in time to warn you about the Dragon of Sameness. Now you won’t have to fight it, or waste twenty years of your life like I did.
Next, I’ll tell you about the other Deadly Dragons you will have to battle on your hero’s journey.
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Read the adult version of this chapter.