Questioning Your Single Story


In I <3 the Huckabees, an activist named Albert hires existentialist detectives, husband and wife Vivian and Bernard, to investigate his life's coincidences. Things get weird when Albert's enemy of sorts, dapper businessman Brad (played by Jude Law), hires them too. When both Albert and Brad become uncomfortable with the detectives' spy-work, Brad is the first to crack under the weight of one simple question: How am I not myself?
The echo of the question infects him. He can't think. He can't speak.

How am I not myself? 

To be yourself is some cliche advice but we all have our "not myself" moments. We're telling our friends the same stories because we know the punchlines land. We're dressing up because we don't know any other way. We're thinking too little of our own way because we're following in the footsteps of another. And it's easy to get caught up in being someone else when there is a how-to guide available for just about everything. But it's more complicated than that. You can't produce a masterpiece painting by numbers. You can't drink a protein shake to change your body type. You can't make a splash by mirroring your hero's sleep patterns. You can be inspired, but you can only be you. 

Sometimes, we grow up with this thinking and it's hard to shake. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie recalls growing up in Nigeria, knowing nothing of the world but what she read in British children's books. For the children of Nigeria that's all that was available. And when Adichie started writing stories of her own, she wrote about British children and British things. She wrote about blonde hair and blue eyes, playing in the snow and drinking ginger beer, when she had no idea what any of that looked, felt or tasted like.

Adichie considers this the danger of the single story. We take fiction as fact when we have nothing else. She experienced it again, later in her life, when she arrived in America. She was aware of American culture because it was available to her, but she quickly realized her American roommates didn't understand what it meant to be from Africa. They had a single story about her, and it was that she was some other person from some other world. A poor, barren, uneducated tribal land. And so when Adichie offered up her Mariah Carey cassette tape, her American roommates decided she wasn't really African.

Retreating to a single story is safe. It makes us feel like we can contain the world and know something about it, when the truth is infinitely more complicated. And rightfully so. If life was so simple to be captured by a group of single, straight stories, we'd have nothing left to explore, to learn, or to be.

How am I not myself?

When I'm falling for my own single story.

Explode into Space was my story for a while. Years ago, when I drove across America for thirty days, Explode into Space was a series of emails I wrote back to friends and family to assure them I was alive. The title was ripped from a lyric in the Steppenwolf song "Born to Be Wild". It was just as much as an ode to exploration as it was an inside joke that "Born to Be Wild" is the only appropriate song to play, on repeat, while driving across the country.

After Explode into Space became a regular delivery and I launched almost a hundred emails, I thought I'd try something new. I started a new blog under my name here. But I'll admit my aspiration was warped. Once my email series from the road became a living blog online, everything changed. The single story of blogging had me acting unlike myself. I was working too hard to build a social media following. I kept a schedule that ended up making my Sundays painful. I was trying too hard to figure out how to get rich, get famous, and get followers. Like everyone else. 

And then Maria Popova, writer of Brain Pickings, knocked some common sense into me with her words on The Tim Ferriss Show. Popova was asked her advice to first-time bloggers and she said, "Write for yourself. If you want to create something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people, the counterintuitive but really, really necessary thing is that you must not write for people. The second you begin to write for or to a so-called audience - and this applies equally to podcasting and filmmaking and photography and dance and any field of creative endeavor - the second you start doing it for an audience, you've lost the long game because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run requires most of all keeping yourself excited about it, which in turn of course requires only doing things that you yourself are interested in."

If you're pushing to make something for yourself or become who you really want to be, you need to explode into space. You need to go into the unknown that only you can explore and come back with something to share. You might be saving yourself some time building a birdhouse by reading about it, but connecting with others means doing something only you can do. 

Forget the single story. Write your own version. Right now. We're all waiting.