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January 20, 2017

The Person I Could Have Been

By Vega Subramaniam

This is for all of you who are filled with regret about choices you made, paths you took, your foolishness, your failures.

Some of you may have heard that the definition of hell is, on your last day on earth, the person you are meets the person you could have been.

When I first came across this quote, I was like, oh dear god, my lost potential and misspent youth. I was like, I have to shape up RIGHT NOW.

Obviously. That’s what the quote is meant to evoke.

But…wait. Not so fast, Quote. Which “me”? The “me” of my imagination at this current moment on this particular space-time continuum? The “me” of age 14 who dreamt of being an astronaut? The “me” of my first year of grad school who thought she’d be a professor, maybe?

When does the clock start ticking?

I do not want to go back to college (or high school, or grad school) for a re-do. Because let me be clear: the path(s) I was on then would suit me not at all today. And if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe a psychologist.

So suck it, Hell. You can have those “persons I could have been.”

Just into my 50s, I am offered the chance yet again to reflect on who I am…and who I am not, or no longer am. And I’ve got a few more data points to consider who I imagined I’d be compared to who I’m currently stuck being.

You know what else I have now: I have all the autonomy, time- and location-sovereignty, and clarity I could want to make of myself who I want to be. Now when I think about that future person I’ll meet upon my death…well, now we’re talking. Am I now, with the autonomy, sovereignty, and clarity I did not have at age 16 or 20 or even 28 (who am I kidding, even 48), doing what I need to do so that the person I could become as of this moment is relatively close to the person I will meet on that last day of my life?

Good question. That’s the re-do I’m willing to explore, rather than spiraling into the past and the coulda-beens. And it involves moving beyond what I’m doing professionally, to my characteristics and personality quirks, the habits and practices that help propel me forward or hold me in place.

Sometimes, change just sort of happens, in that gradual, frog-in-increasingly-hot-water kind of way. I used to go out dancing every weekend — “weekend” defined loosely to encompass Thursday and perhaps also the occasional Wednesday, you know how it is. I used to spin into a FOMO-induced panic at the prospect of being home alone on a Friday or Saturday evening.

But then, those things gradually dissipated on their own. It wasn’t like I thought to myself, “I need to decide to stop going out dancing every weekend.” Or “I need to force myself to stay home on Friday and Saturday nights on my own in order to develop self-confidence.”

No, they just, somehow, disappeared. They were probably byproducts of other changes. Things like: I get more quickly fatigued (hello, middle age!). I am more confident that I am liked and thought of even in my absence (hello, middle age!). I recognize precisely zero of the songs they play, and I don’t move the way the other people in the space are moving. I have lots of other fun things that I enjoy doing and that fill up that space that going out dancing once took. Basically: reasons.

On the other hand, there are those traits that I actively want to change or improve (discipline, say, or being a morning person). Here’s where I have to confront the resistances reminding me of what I give up in order to improve on this other thing. Discipline means giving up on spontaneity. Being a morning person means giving up on being Cool. That is real.

And, these are the practices that, if I incorporate them, will end me up becoming the person I could have been.

And that’s my focus this year: being the kind of person every day that will turn me into the person I could have been. I am ready.

How about you?

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