Drifting Along vs. Steering Your Boat

We’ve all heard these phrases:

“Be true to yourself!”
"March to the beat of your own drum!”
“Trust yourself…you know more than you think you do.”

In this 2-part series, we’ll dig deeper into the reasons for being the individuals we are, explore why we aren’t always ourselves and identify some practical steps that we can take to start living more authentically. We’ll get some help from philosopher Martin Heidegger’s book, Being and Time, as he offers useful insights that can help us think through how to be the best version of ourselves. 

Some Individual Truths

Before we can come to a conclusion about what it means to be the best version of ourselves, we need an idea about what our “selves” are –what it means to be a person; then can we determine how best to go about it.

  • Every human being is completely unique. Your exact history, experience and perspective, along with your interests, skills and physical makeup, are like no one else’s. We, as human beings, are unique individuals and we must remain mindful of that fact as we live our lives. Your life is yours; my life is mine; and so on for each individual.
  • There is no set model or map of life for human beings. Our futures are not strictly determined by our biology, our history, our culture or other factors that become a part of our life at birth. We have options and, in most instances, the freedom to craft ourselves based on individual interests, skills and motivations.

In spite of these two truths, there are influences in life that make it difficult for us to act like individuals and to assume the personal responsibility necessary to freely develop our individuality. Sometimes we don’t stop to think about the needs and desires of our individual selves, sometimes we don’t have the courage to live out our lives in a certain way and sometimes the influence of others is just too strong to let our individuality shine through. Therefore, we don’t always act like the individuals we are. We don’t always direct our lives as responsibly as we could. By not doing so, we don’t really honor the completely unique life each of us has been given.

Doing “What One Does”

According to Heidegger, we’re open to the world in a way that no other being is because we can see things that are not yet, but can be. We see possibilities, and we project ourselves into the future based on the possibilities we choose to pursue. However, the possibilities we’re normally open to, Heidegger says, are artificially limited. That’s because we tend to limit ourselves to the possibilities (for doing, judging, experiencing, feeling, believing and valuing) that others around us are pursuing. We don’t refer to ourselves for the direction we take; rather, we tend to do “what one does” (translated: “what others tend to do/think/believe/value/etc.”). This means we’re missing out on a lot of individualized options.

So, what does doing “what one does” really mean? 

It means going along with what others are doing. When people get together or interact, we have a natural tendency to conform how we behave, what we believe, etc. to the behaviors, beliefs and so on of others. This means that rather than projecting ourselves individually into our own futures, we’re being projected, passively, by ideas of “what one does” (says, feels, judges, values, etc.). This collective influence overruns our individuality, and, in extreme instances, actually cuts off our communication with ourselves.

Imagine you’re a boat in a fast moving stream. The stream’s strong current is “what one does.” Your boat has a steering system (thought, reflection, choice-making capacity and emotional engagement with the world), but it’s switched off when you don’t think for yourself. So you drift along in the direction of the current. There are many offshoots that your boat could go down, but the “what one does” current tends to push you in the same direction as everyone else. Only until something anchors you in place (which happens when we “get stuck” by a question, a doubt, a realization) and disrupts your going with the flow, do you take a look around and realize there are so many different directions you could take, if only you chose to steer. 

You may be thinking, “but people don’t all do and think and feel and value and judge the same – there’s plenty of disagreement between individuals and groups of people, and plenty of different life paths people pursue.” The idea of doing “what one does” doesn’t mean that there’s only one current to drift along on – there are plenty of them, and the one(s) we find ourselves swept away by depends on several factors including who we’re around, where we physically are, the types of information we’re exposed to and the way we’re educated.

We may question Heidegger’s claim that we drift along on the current of “what one does” almost all the time, but it’s hard to deny that, many times, we do so without referring to ourselves or going through a conscious choice-making process. 

How “What One Does” Influences Us

For some, this influence manifests in small, occasional ways. For example, a man throws himself a graduation party, even though he dreads the planning process and the idea of entertaining others, because that’s “what one does” when one graduates. Or, a woman takes a vacation to Paris and goes to all the tourist spots without any real interest, because that’s “what one does” in Paris. If the graduating man had asked himself how he’d like to celebrate rather than feeling obligated by convention, he might have had a much better time. If the vacationing woman had asked herself what experiences she wanted to have while in France, she might have had a more enriching experience. In this sense, going along with the current can limit the individual experiences we allow ourselves to have, or involve us in experiences we don’t really want or enjoy. 

In more severe instances, the course of entire lives can be determined by the direction of the de-individualized “what one does.” A man becomes a lawyer or a coal miner because that’s what his father did.  A woman marries young and has kids as soon as possible because that’s “what one does” in her family. A man is the member of a religious faith because he was born into it and never questioned it. The miner and lawyer, in these examples, may have never asked themselves what they really wanted to do; they took it for granted that “what one does” is to become a lawyer or miner in this family.

What about personal interests and passions? The woman may have preferred to pursue higher education or enter the work force rather than starting a family right away. But, to do so, she would have to consider these possibilities for herself and put herself in a position to make a conscious choice. Finally, if the blindly faithful man had thought critically about his faith and learned about what other belief systems are out there, he may either have strengthened and deepened the faith he was born into (by more personally engaging with it) or found a system that better resonated with him.

It’s important to note that we have a strong tendency to take our cues from those around us without asking ourselves how we want to project ourselves into our futures.  This following of “what one does” can be an occasional interruption in our autonomy, or it can steer the entire course of our lives. It’s not that all the ways in which others influence us are negative – in fact, they can be and often are good for us. However, we have a chance to live a more authentic life if we are aware of when we’re not checking in with ourselves so that we can balance our “what one does” tendencies with the individual desires, motivations and preferences we have for our own life.

A More Authentic Approach

“I know of nothing more valuable, when it comes to the all-important virtue of authenticity, than simply being who you are.”
Charles Swindoll

There is a different way to live than just drifting along on the current, doing “what one does.” Heidegger called it authentic living. It involves realizing that each of us has a unique life and seeing the expanse of possibilities before us. It’s what happens to our boat-selves when we choose to switch on our personal steering system.

When we drift along, we’re not really making choices for ourselves. In most such instances, we may not have even chosen to drift along, because that’s mostly an unconscious process. However, when we start making choices for ourselves, we have the opportunity to stop going along with “what one does.”  When we decide to stop drifting and to start steering, we experience opportunities to make personal choices that direct the way we will project ourselves into our futures – actively, consciously, thoughtfully.

This choice to steer isn’t an easy choice to make, and is even more difficult to follow through on. There’s a sense of security or false grounding that we get from doing “what one does” – there’s strength in numbers, after all. It’s much harder to refer to oneself when making choices, particularly when your choice runs counter to the flowing current. 

It can even be frightening to steer oneself.  The responsibility for who we are and how we conduct ourselves, from the time we make that choice, is heavy. However, think of how fundamentally different life is when we do so. Our values are more meaningful; our beliefs and views more genuine; our actions, career paths and other pursuits, more fulfilling. Life is both more difficult and more rewarding when we approach it authentically – when its course emanates from within our wholly unique selves. Only then are we the true crafters of who we are.

Combining Currents with Individuality

Remember this next – and very important – point:

Authenticity does not mean that we shun all traditions, popular opinions, social customs or popular morality. It doesn’t mean throwing everything associated with other people away. It also doesn’t mean doing, believing, valuing and feeling the opposite of what is popular; when that misguided approach is taken, you’re still taking your cues from “what one does” by simply doing the opposite. Authenticity means seeing the many possibilities before us and choosing which to pursue by communicating with ourselves. Often, there will be some overlap; you may find that some of the ideas that are popular around you truly resonate with you, or the career path others expect you to pursue is what you actually want for yourself. But until you go through the process of checking in with yourself, you don’t know if that is so. Sometimes you will need to ask others for advice. That’s fine. The key is not to let others drown out your internal dialogue in the process.

Practical Steps

How do we become the best version of ourselves? How can we live more authentically? Well, there is no “5 Easy Steps for Becoming Authentic” that you can read to find out; there is no exact roadmap for this way of living. Precisely because we’re individuals with no pre-defined route for our lives, there are as many ways to exist authentically as there are people.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t take specific steps going forward to help us cultivate the courage to live more authentically. It depends, to a great extent, on the choices we are willing to make. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at some of the steps you can take that may help you to live a more authentic life. 

Written by Amée LaTour


Part 2:
Switching on Your Steering System

©Copyright 2014 / Good Choices Good Life, Inc. / All Rights Reserved

“Be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else.” Judy Garland