The renowned gadfly of American psychiatry, Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist himself and professor of psychiatry, famously denied the very existence of mental illness in his 1961, The Myth of Mental Illness. Szasz, who died in 2012, was wrong about that, and saw his challenge to the profession become little more than a footnote in mental health books, if that. More and more he is valued less and less.
But Szasz is remembered nonetheless for something else he wrote--in a 1973 book called The Second Sin: "People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates." That one still rings true.
No one knows, of course, what to say when silly adults ask what you want to be when you grow up. I remember my first ambition as a child was to become a garbage man. I wanted to be the guy on the street who threw cans (they were steel then) up to a guy on the truck who emptied it and then tossed the can back down. One of my daughters alternated between wanting to be a truck driver (Peterbilts were her favorites) and the editor of the New York Times.
I never did figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. My career as a college English teacher seemed to happen less by design than by random developments that gradually led me there. But once there, I made two decisions. One was to get a Ph.D. The other was to become a publishing scholar. That seemed to me to sum up what a college English teacher is. Or should be.
So I worked my way slowly toward those goals--and eventually succeeded. But it's the "slowly" and "eventually" parts that I want to emphasize. It was such slow going that in desperation I gave up altogether on the fast track. I simply could not rush the process. I came to realize that inching my way forward on any given day was about all I could hope for--and some days I couldn't even do that. These were valuable lessons, but never during that process was I trying to find myself, but was instead creating myself, in Thomas Szasz's construction.
For me, the key was learning how to take small steps. And then to be satisfied with them.