As I get older, I am faced with coming to terms with the fact that I can’t do everything that I set out to do in life.
There is only so much time in the day. Priorities shift, and sometimes we must accept things we may not be able to change, and adapt accordingly.
Most of us do not become the heros we imagined we’d be as children. We usually don’t mourn these lost identities that we aspired to become.
I never became an astronaut, nor did I become the next David Attenborough, and I’m not sad about that in my late-30s.
But sometimes shedding a dream or an identity hurts.
Sometimes it’s necessary (and beneficial) to shed an identity that we have given ourselves. And while it can feel like losing a part of who we are, there is tremendous opportunity for growth, satisfaction, and joy in doing it.
Losing A Piece Of Who I AM What I Do
Ten years ago, my life revolved around filmmaking. I had ambitions of moving out west to pursue a career in the movie industry. I’d watch the Academy Award show every February with a dream of one day accepting mine.
I went to film school. I started an indie filmmaking collaborative that produced a dozen projects. I self-produced a few of my own. For five years, I was a busy freelance cameraman in Chicago.
Fast-forward to today, and filmmaking isn’t even something on my radar right now, which feels weird considering that it was such a huge part of my life for more than a decade.
Last summer, I sold the last “semi-pro” camera that I owned, as well as my last professional microphone. Both had been sitting in my camera bag, unused, for at least two years.
While I like to imagine that a kid is out there producing rough short films and honing his or her skill on my old gear, it felt like I was letting go of a piece of myself when I let this gear go. I felt that I was releasing a part of my identity.
Just before I attended film school back in 2004, I let go of my identity as a publisher of a popular, online (and now defunct) paranormal magazine (The X-Project).
This was my “baby” that I built from nothing back in 1997 (officially launched in ’98). I ate, breathed, and slept paranormal investigation and built a huge following in the days before social media (and even Google).
That website opened up connections. It gave me the opportunity to spend three weeks on a lake in Seljord, Norway searching for a lake serpent as the Discovery Channel filmed the whole thing.
But by 2004, bilateral tendinitis, a change in mindset (I was becoming too skeptical to write about the paranormal), and a budding interest in filmmaking necessitated a change. I sold the website, but I felt like I had lost a big part of who I was over the previous six years.
Shifting Priorities & Restructuring Dreams
We go through somewhat of a mourning process every time we let go of a dream we have. It feels like we lose a piece of ourselves.
Sometimes, that loss is filled by a budding new interest.
Sometimes we simply grow out of it. This was the case with filmmaking. My fierce, independent and entrepreneurial nature would have prevented me from being fulfilled working within the Hollywood studio system.
The stress and sacrifice of becoming an indie filmmaker was less appealing than other options that presented themselves to me (like making a living as a blogger/writer).
And sometimes, it’s necessary to pair down our ambitions so that we can focus on achieving one life dream.
I have always wanted to write a novel. I have written several thanks to the annual NaNoWriMo event that I have participated in most years since 2012.
The problem is that I have yet to actually edit and complete one. The reasons excuses are many, but having too many ambitions definitely gets in the way.
It has become necessary to simplify and pair down what I focus on with what little free time I have – especially since I became a father in 2013. That often means letting go of an identity that I feel is part of who I am.
Certain career aspirations become hobbies (art), while some interests are back-burnered indefinitely (filmmaking) so that I can pursue the one thing that is most important to me (novel writing) in the time that I have each day.
Mourning The Loss Of Identity & Filling The Void
It’s tough to let go of something that feels (or felt) like such a big part of who you were.
I still called myself a “filmmaker” years after I shot my last project.
Letting go of religious or political identity is especially turbulent, but often necessary for personal growth.
Moving away from a community, or group of people, with whom your identity had been tied to is also extremely difficult, not to mention isolating.
So here’s how to navigate the mourning process and embrace new possibilities:
1) Take Decisive Action
Don’t let yourself get caught up in “paralysis by analysis”. You can spend years hemming and hawing about letting something go and moving in a new direction.
Just do it. Pull the trigger and go forward with a new dream.
And don’t forget that nothing is permanent. You can always reclaim an identity later on.
Approach life planning as more of a fluid process rather than a rigid “point A to point B”, “either/or” framework.
2) Continue To Engage In Interests, But Attach Priorities To Them
If you are not ready to fully let go of a part of your identity, then continue to adopt it, but give it a lower priority.
As I mentioned above, there isn’t enough time in each day to be everything that you want to be. And sometimes, it means that you never fully realize any one dream.
So try to focus on one core identity that means the most to you (in my case, becoming a novelist), and block off as much time as you can to pursuing that goal/dream.
I recommend taking daily, consistent action towards one goal. Then reevaluate your priorities when you complete it.
3) Shelving Doesn’t Mean Letting Go Permanently
Just because you let go of an identity doesn’t mean that it’s gone forever. You can place it on a shelf, so to speak, and pick it back up later.
Yes, I no longer have the necessary equipment to shoot a professional-level short film. My skills are getting rusty. I’m completely out of the loop as far as where the industry is, and in the technology that has advanced so far and fast since I produced my last project.
But I know that I can quickly get back into filmmaking if I wanted to. I can bring myself up to speed, and re-acquire the essential gear.
I am no longer a filmmaker, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t ever adopt that title again, and pursue it.
4) Mourn, Then Look For Opportunities
Give yourself time to mourn a lost identity.
It’s easier to move past an identity that you have shed under your own volition. You made the choice, and it’s often because something else has replaced it – a new interest, a new opportunity, or a simple restructuring of priorities.
But for some of us, life knocks us on our ass and we are given no choice about the matter.
If you had a life-long goal of playing for the NFL but a tragic accident or illness lands you in a wheelchair, the mourning process will take some time. But don’t forget that there are many ways to pursue your dream.
You could find an adapted sports team – or build your own if one doesn’t exist. Google “wheelchair football” and you’ll see that there really aren’t any limits. You can also write a sports blog, coach, or experiment with other adapted sports.
A visual artist who loses eyesight can still pursue art through music, sculpture, and, well, there are many blind artists creating stunning artwork!
Sometimes, you don’t need to completely let go of an identity, but you may need to adopt a modified version of it, or accept it in a different form.
5) Fully Embrace New (or Refocused) Identity
It’s important to fully embrace who you are and who you want to become.
If an identity that you are attached to begins to feel wrong, or is longer serving you, let it go. Mourn its loss. But then move on, create, and explore new dreams and directions.