The tragedy of not knowing who you are

Before we start the journey of this post, let me ask you a question: Who are you?

You’ve heard this question before and can probably answer it immediately, but that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Answers like: I am a mechanic, a businessman, a motor freak, a loser, a nobody, a king, a whatever, won’t cut it. While these answers form a part of your identity, it is not who you are. It is what you are. This is just the superficial stuff, the surface, the stuff that can change tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.

When I ask who you are, I’m asking: Who are you really, what is important to you and what do you really want out of life? What needs to happen for you to lay on your deathbed and look back on your life with a big smile on your face? What is the one thing that is your mission in this lifetime? Chances are you have no clue.

Isn’t it strange that you don’t really know the person you spend every second of your life with? You know everything about everybody, but have no clue who you are yourself. We spend hours upon hours in front of the television, watching the latest gossips. We listen to the news day in and out. We talk about other people, know what makes them tick, but are completely unaware of ourselves.

What were your childhood dreams, what did you love to do, do you still remember?

Going through life without knowing who you are is the biggest tragedy possible. When this happens you are just an idea that is never executed, a delicacy that’s forgotten and is doomed to rot on the shelf, a gift that is returned to sender. It might seem you are doing great. After all, you have a cool job and a steady paycheck, you are busy and going places, but is this really you? Are you executing the real you or are you heading nowhere fast?


The paradox is that when we have something we don’t really care for it, and when it’s gone we miss it. In most cases, such as relationships and material things, we can reverse the process or do some damage control, but with life, the end is the end. Death is still far away, so no need to worry about it now right? Sure, no need to worry. But, this isn’t about worrying. This is about learning from mistakes from others so we don’t have to make them.

Bronnie Ware worked as a palliative caregiver for several years and guided patients in the last weeks of their lives. While doing this she also asked her patients what their biggest regrets are. It seems that when death is upon us we can get crystal clear about our lives, who we really are and what we wanted to do differently. The results of her research made it clear there were some pretty serious common themes. Visit her blog Inspiration and Chai to find out more about Bronnie’s work. The five most common regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

These are some really big regrets to have and it’s a heartbreaking thing when you realize these are such common themes. What this basically boils down to is that the majority of people never know who they really are. Even if they did, they never had the courage to express themselves, resulting in a life of suppression. Apart from never being their authentic selves they even robbed themselves of the opportunity of being happy and sharing more time with their loved ones. Having regrets about not making a trip around the world or not buying your dream house are acceptable, but these five regrets are about as tragic as it can get.

If you would summarize this it would sound something like this: “I’ve spent my life being someone I never wanted to be, because I was not courageous enough to find out who I really am and claim my place as an authentic person, therefore I have spent a life away from my family and friends to work a lot at a job I didn’t really like and this resulted in me not being happy.”

Someone hold my coffee while I’ll roll up in the fetal position and cry my eyeballs out for humanity.


When I was still in school I did the bare minimum to make it to the next year (but not an inch more). I walked a thin thread of staying in school or being kicked out through my entire school career, but this was all calculated risk. I broke every rule in the book just to keep things interesting and get through the day. The detention teacher didn’t even write my name, she just wrote a D. I spent more time in detention than in the classroom. So, was I a bad kid? I don’t think so. I was just a kid with spirit that refused to let school break it. For the most part, school felt like a waste of time and turns out it nowadays is.

The school system has gotten a bad rep over the last years, and that’s probably for the best. It’s not a complete waste of time, but the system is highly outdated. It’s still a system that’s created for the industrial revolution, designed to fit the needs of the market instead of the wants of the children. Back when the demand for cogs was high children were poured into the mold of a cog. Times were harder back then and options where limited, so being molded into a cog wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. There was job security and the alternative was a life on the streets.

But now times are different. The possibilities are endless, the need for cogs is gone, and the younger generations are much more enlightened when it comes to creating a meaningful life. Take the millennials for instance; they rather get a job where they can contribute to a better world and earn less money, than a job that just makes a ton of money.

The school system is broken and it creates broken people. Young children full of livelihood, spontaneity, and curiosity, start with school, and all get the exact same program. Let’s call this program the tree. The objective of the school program is to make sure all the kids can climb up the same tree. The old, crooked tree their parents, and everybody else had to climb in as well. Great news if you are a monkey, but what if you are not a monkey? What if you are a fish?

What if no one tells you that you’re a fish? What if you know you are a fish, but everyone acts like you are a monkey? Sooner or later you’ll think you are a monkey. But, no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to climb the tree. Even if you are a cat, you’ll be able to climb the tree, but never as good as the monkeys. The fish will spend the rest of his life trying to climb the tree and will feel like an idiot. He will go through life and when it’s time to leave this life he will list the five regrets listed above.

A fish with dyslexia spends his entire childhood thinking he’s stupid, but he’s not stupid, he’s just meant to be an artist. A hyperactive Jack Russell dog is diagnosed with ADHD and gets put on meds, but in reality, he is meant to be one of the best breakdancers in the world.

What happens when you put the same fish in the water? You get a happy fucking fish, swimming around and sharing his talents and gifts with the rest of his fish buddies, leaving the water a bit better than when he came into it.


And so fish spent their lives learning things that don’t really interest them just to climb the tree. But the amazing thing with kids is they are still in touch with who they really are. However, the cruel thing is every day they are taught to climb a tree they slowly are fading away from knowing who they are.

We slowly rob them from their dreams and steal their spontaneity, creativity and life juice one useless piece of information at the time. We force them to learn stuff that doesn’t resonate with them and teach them things that aren’t meant for them. The fish are bored and become annoying and show behavior that is out of the ordinary. Out of the ordinary means, it doesn’t fit the mold they are supposed to fit in. Out of the ordinary means, they stand out. They stand out from the status quo of the system. In another setting they are leaders, but in the school system, they are dysfunctional and not capable of anything.

Millions of kids are diagnosed with all kinds of conditions like ADHD and what not. But, couldn’t it be that they are just utterly bored and rebel at us for stealing their dreams?

Before we even have a chance to really get to know ourselves, to really pursue our dreams, we get robbed, our dreams get crushed. They are crushed by broken gatekeepers who tell us things like: “Be realistic, you can never pay the bills as a dancer”, and “You are so stupid, you can’t even write properly, you can never become anything useful“. But our dreams don’t go away. They stay in the backpack of life. Maybe broken, but still there. It might take some glue and creativity to put the pieces back together, but they’re there.


School and society are focusing on trying to make everyone the same. But we are not the same, each and every one of us is highly unique. Throughout school, we are taught to develop the skills we aren’t really good at and leave alone what we are already good at. This might have worked for centuries but now it’s a recipe for failure. There is no place for the mediocre man anymore. The mediocre man is replaced by third world countries who can do a better job for a fraction of the price and eventually robots will take over the mediocre man completely. Being mediocre is like Indian food without spices, like a pizza without cheese. Nobody wants that.

The internet holds the shovel that buries the mediocre man. Back in the good ol’ days your options were limited and your only options were the people around you, but not anymore. Internet shows the best of the best within a fraction of a second, no matter where they are.

Your value nowadays lies completely in your authenticity and your superpowers. We live in a world were superhumans thrive and the mediocre man completely dies out. Hollywood blockbusters are filled with superheroes, and we all have our favorites. But, if these superheroes would go through the system, they wouldn’t be superheroes.

Indiana Jones would be told to not be so curious, to sit down and pay attention. The teacher would take away James Bond’s silly toys and tell him to grow up. The Hulk would be put on meds and told to sit quietly and taught by society that emotions are bad.

But we all know Indiana’s superpower is his curiosity and eye for detail. We all know that Bond’s superpower is his arsenal of toys and his ability to adapt. And we all know the Hulk’s superpower is to fuck shit up. HULK SMASH! Fuck yeah!

“Common man, these are just stories for fun, be real”, you might say. Oke true, but what about Mahatma Gandhi, what about Martin Luther King and what about Richard Branson? Gandhi realized his superpower wasn’t being a lawyer, but inspiring people and connecting them in a peaceful way. MLK’s superpower was raising awareness and speaking from the heart, and Branson’s superpower is doing things differently. It’s even called The Branson Way.


When you look at most children you’ll notice they are spontaneous and unprejudiced. Keeping these valuable trades in good shape is hard work, and 99% fails. Not because we don’t like to be that way, but because society and the status quo is constantly trying to break these trades down.The king of the jungle has to be tamed and turned into a sheep. The wild river has to stop flowing and turn into a creek.

The obvious thing to say here is that kids should be taught how to behave for the greater good. If everyone acts like a monkey the world becomes a zoo. Agreed, but there’s a difference between teaching children to have respect and decency in a way that keeps there spirit alive and breaking down their entire authenticity by kneading them until they fit the mold.

High school kids play, have fun, scream and shout, do crazy shit, all to the annoyance of ‘mature’ people. These kids get looked at in an angry way, but luckily they hardly notice. Sometimes an angry, broken, ‘mature’ person steps in and corrects them in a way that’s pretty rude. Instead of being inspired by the spontaneity and authenticity these kids still have, they order them to get back in line.

A grumpy, old man grabs one of the kids by the arm, says some mean shit about how they behave and bystanders applaud him for showing them how it’s done. If his action is successful you see a part of the inner child in these kids dying right on the spot. This is traumatic. The child gets wired to think it’s wrong to be playful and enjoy life.

The grumpy, old man might say something along the lines of “stop behaving like savages and keep it down”, but what he really is saying is “hey, we are all miserable and you have to act the same way as us, because you remind us what life is all about and we don’t want our suppressed feelings coming up”. Society will tell you to be just like them. Not because it’s good for you, but because it’s good for them.

People don’t stop playing because they grow old, they grow old because they stop playing. Think about that for a minute.

When we are born we are free spirits, but from the moment we are born this free spirit slowly gets caged. The world conditions us and forms us into the people we finally become. It’s like everyday people throw tiny bits of mud on you that stick. In the beginning, your free spirit still shines through, but with every piece of mud, it gets buried more and more. Eventually, you are completely covered in mud and feel so suppressed by the weight of it you can hardly move.

Men are taught real men don’t cry, woman are taught they are not equal to men, but it doesn’t work. People become pressure cookers. Maybe they’ll finish the ride of life without ever exploding, holding all that emotion and their inner child safely inside, but it’s not pretty.


Not knowing who you are isn’t an individual tragedy, it’s an epidemic. The collateral damage is insane.

When you go through life trying to climb the tree, you’ll be miserable, you will settle for less, you will never fulfill your task here on the globe. That’s a messed up thing. But what is even more messed up is that the majority of people are trying to climb the tree they were never supposed to climb.

So, this creates a world with people in the wrong place. People who never excel, people who do a just good enough job. People who live for the weekends and hate Monday morning. People who wear masks all day and don’t even know anymore that there is a real person under the mask. People who can’t even remember their childhood dreams anymore. People who gave up and are being ‘realistic’.

The good news is that in today’s day and age there isn’t a reason to do shit you don’t want to do. With the internet everything can be monetized, but only if you’re good enough. The middle is gone, only the best of the best rise to the top. And to be the best of the best you have to work from a sense of purpose to tap into a state where you can really thrive. When you are your authentic self it’s easy to be the best of the best. There is not much competition. The best of the best is about the best version of who you are, not what you are.

A part of the world is at a point where all is well and where the opportunity is created to think about your higher meaning in life, your purpose. But finding your purpose isn’t easy. This is one of the reasons millennials are going through such a crisis. Yes, they want to work, but they want to fulfill their purpose and create meaning for the world. That’s a great concept to work with. That’s way better than just working a job that pays well, where you pull yourself through the week and life in the weekends to compensate for the week.

But how would your life shift if you would find your real purpose? What would happen if the fish realizes his path isn’t in the tree, but in the water? Not only would the fish feel naturally at home, he would also be in an environment where he can thrive. Surrounded by other fish that empower him. Now, this fish is happy, doing things he loves and adding much more value to the world. Imagine what would happen if this was done by all the people. Everybody would be a superhuman, doing things they would love and get more energy from it.

When you ask a fish swimming in the water who he is, he can tell you in detail and passion what makes him tick, what is important to him and what he wants to do on the globe. He can tell you his mission, his purpose. This fish will probably have a couple of regrets on his deathbed, but it won’t be the five we saw earlier.

So, ask yourself: Am I a fish, a monkey, an elephant or something else? Do I have any business in the tree or should I be somewhere else? If you don’t know, it’s time to figure it out. You owe it to yourself, and to the world.

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I write to put things in context for myself and like to believe I figured it out: don’t change the world, change yourself. More on:

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Dennis Stoelwinder

Dennis Stoelwinder

I write to put things in context for myself and like to believe I figured it out: don’t change the world, change yourself. More on:

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