In college, I cheated on only one test.
It was 2010, and the incoming freshmen class was packed into a stuffy auditorium with green velvet seats and low light. I was using the back of a fresh Walmart composition notebook as a desk. “There are no correct answers,” the proctor said from the stage, but we knew he was lying. There were definitely correct answers. I filled in each oval bubble with an unsteady hand and a needle-sharp #2 pencil. For me, this was more than just a new semester or a new school year. It was a new city, a new sense of freedom, and the opportunity to create a new identity.
There were plenty of stories circulating about kids using fake names when they arrived on campus. My friend Jason tried to go by J.R. for a while and another kid in my dorm introduced himself as Tom Cruise. I believed him because what choice did I have? Why did his parents do this to him? Was Tom Cruise not famous yet when this kid was born? Was it a really absurd coincidence? Two years later, we found out his name was Nick. Not even Nicolas Thomas Cruise. Nick Johnson or something like that. He had just decided he wanted to be called Tom Cruise for a while. Nick knew something that we all knew on some level: if we were ever going to reinvent ourselves, now was the time. This was a new community, without assumptions, and (because this was 2010) without Instagram to investigate each other’s clout.
Who did I want to be? Even Tom Cruise was apparently up for grabs.
There are ninety-three forced-choice questions on the Myers-Briggs personality test. They include things like: I try not to draw too much attention to myself. I dislike being in competition with others. I try to avoid conflict.
You get the idea. Our job was to tell this Myers-Briggs fella how accurate we felt the statements were. A few weeks later, a machine would spit out our definitive personality types.
I chewed on my eraser as I thought carefully about each question. Well, there was that one time I willingly danced at a friend’s party, I thought. Despite all the contradictory evidence, maybe I do enjoy vibrant social events with lots of people. There was also that time I gave a class presentation and everyone said I looked “calm and collected.” Hmmm. Thrives in high-pressure situations, anyone?
My answers reflected the person I wanted to be, which is apparently an ENFP (Extroversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perception).
I definitely cheated. As an 18-year-old, I had no interest in getting to know myself. My mission was not to discover but to create.
At this age, many of us don’t know who we are, so we flounder through conversations and brag about the things we’re insecure about and practice a new laugh in the mirror before bed. We fake it. We change our hair and buy new clothes. We pretend to be someone else–anyone else–because we’re terrified of finding out who we really are.
Who am I? This question doesn’t go away as we get older. But with any luck, with the passing of time and the gift of age, we begin breaking down walls. We experience hardship, the death of loved ones, a life-threatening diagnosis. We lose our jobs and our hearts get broken. We struggle. We heal. We decide it’s time to confront that all-persistent question once again. And eventually, we learn how.
We have a few options when this question presents itself. We can continue running from ourselves, our problems, our trauma, our emotions. We can try to satisfy it by creating an identity out of our careers, our faith traditions, or our relationships. Or we can get curious. We can dive into the brackish water and explore the ways our insides have collaborated with our exterior circumstances to make us who we are today. In other words, we can try to answer the damn question.
You could spend so much time and money trying to create the life you want, trying to become somebody, that you forget you already are. Just look at the self-help section at your local bookstore. You might think that the key to a peaceful existence is in how effectively you can change, become better, richer, skinnier, and smarter. But it won’t work. The key is in how we discover. And accept. How curious we can get about this whole ridiculous thing that is conscious existence.
Why did I react that way?
Why do I feel so anxious right now?
Why do I hate the look on that person’s face?
Why do I dislike authority so much?
Why do I feel the need to manipulate my loved ones? Is it because I’m afraid of being abandoned? Why am I afraid of that?
And on and on they go.
Honestly, it can be really terrifying letting this ball unravel. It’s not easy or comfortable identifying why we feel the way we feel and why we do the things we do. A lot of our actions and emotions are symptoms of something deep beyond our level of consciousness. They’re the result of some hidden fear. Something we haven’t sufficiently explored yet. To understand ourselves, we have to get down and dirty. We have to get curious. And then view it all objectively, refusing to judge what we discover.
In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Mary Karr (author of The Liars’ Club, Lit, and other great books) expressed this concept beautifully. “The problem isn’t whatever your mind is telling you the problem is,” she said. “The problem is the fear. And for me, the solution to fear is curiosity and presence. I can’t be terrified and curious at the same time.”
As a new college student sitting in an auditorium with hundreds of other incoming freshmen, do you know what I was terrified of? Rejection. What if I don’t make any friends? What if all these people hate me? What if I do something embarrassing and acquire an unwanted nickname? But you know what? I couldn’t have been the only one. The fear in that room was palpable. Looking down the row, I saw legs bouncing and hands trembling. I would bet that most of us were considering the implications of our answers. I remember the nervous laughter that broke out every couple of minutes. It was like our destiny rested in those tiny oval bubbles, and we didn’t know what to do with all the pent-up anxiety.
It’s possible to spend your entire life cheating on personality tests and creating identities that don’t scare you. But maybe getting curious and diving into yourself is a better option. Maybe the path to peace is the one with the most resistance.