Who the Hell Are You?

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At social gatherings in major cities in the United States, it is customary to say "hello" when meeting new people. The first two questions most people ask are:

1) What’s your name?
2) What do you do?

The first question isn’t surprising. Its purpose is to know how to refer to you by name.

The phrasing of the second question is peculiar.

Its purpose is to answer the question “Who are you?”

This allows others to associate your name with some information about your identity as a person.

However, rather than ask “Who are you?”, most people in the U.S. ask, “What do you do?”

This assumes the two questions are essentially one and the same.

It has taken me years to realize just how much I disagree with this premise.

Here’s why.

You are not your job.

You are not your income.

You are not your profession.

You are not your mistakes or failures.

You are also not your success.

Sure, these are elements of your identity, but they are not the core of who you are. It’s important to recognize the distinction.

The CORE part of your identity should be something that doesn’t change very often — something enduring if not permanent.

Things like jobs, income and professions are temporary. If you live 100 years, you will not have the same job for that entire time. Your income is not guaranteed and will change. These things are not inherent to you, so by (my) definition, they can not be part of your core identity.

Why am I telling you this?

It’s for a simple reason.

If you attempt anything meaningful (to you) in life, you will come across obstacles, problems and failure. It has been my experience that it is during life’s most difficult times that you find out who you really are.

That’s because it is in life’s most trying times that what you thought was part of your identity disappears from your life. You don’t get that job offer. You get laid off from that dream job. You lose that income. You didn’t get what you want.

In that moment of failure, and in some cases despair, what do you have left?

It’s a profoundly important question.

What you have left is YOU.

For many people, myself included, hitting a major failure point forces you to face this very inconvenient question.

And the two scariest answers in the world to that question are:

1) I have nothing left.

2) I don’t know who I am without everything that has disappeared from my life.

These are very lonely answers to one of life’s most important questions.

Why should you care?

Because at some point in your life, you will face this question. If you do not choose to face this question now, life will dictate the timing of when you face it. And trust me when I say that life tends to choose the worst timing to have you face this question.

Why is it some people seem to bounce back from major failures and setbacks?

Why is it some people have peace of mind?

Why is it when they succeed they aren’t at all anxious about losing what they’ve achieved?

Why is it when some people “fail” they are disappointed, but can function and recover quite easily?

Why does any of this happen?

Here’s my take on the answer to these questions:

They know WHO THEY ARE.

When you take away all the trappings of success, and all you’re left with is a stripped down, vulnerable you, that’s when you find your answers to the question of “Who are you?”

I’ll share with you a simple guide to help you answer this question.

The answer to the question, “Who are you?” is simple.

When you strip away all success, achievement, and materialism...

You are YOUR VALUES.

When you have “nothing,” all you’re left with is your thoughts, your feelings and your VALUES.

If you value kindness, whether you are rich or poor, successful or a failure, you will always strive to be kind — because that is who you are.

If you value learning, whether you got promoted or not, whether you get a raise or not, you will always strive to be learning — because that is who you are.

If you value excellence, whether your performance was good enough by someone else’s standard or not, you will always strive to be excellent (by your standard) — because that is who you are.

If you value respect, whether people are cruel to you or not, you will always be respectful to yourself, to them, and to others — because that is who you are.

In concept this seems simple. And it is.

Yet most people struggle with the question of “Who are you?”

Here’s why.

If you are at all like many (if not most) people, you may not know your own values.

You may have inadvertently adopted OTHER PEOPLE’S values as your own.

You may have adopted values from your parents, friends, teachers, bosses, employers or society at large. And you may have done so without deeply and critically questioning those values to determine for yourself if YOU actually agree with those values enough to make them YOUR OWN.

So let me ask you one of the most important questions you will ever be asked in your lifetime...

Who the Hell Are You?

 

By the way, having your own set of values is one of the critical components of having self esteem. People who value themselves (i.e., have self esteem) have values. People with no self esteem (i.e., have no self esteem) have no values of their own. Instead they borrow other people’s values and end up with “others' esteem” as a very poor substitute to self esteem. For many people, this is the root of much suffering in life.

I recently conducted a class on how to develop unshakeable self-esteem. Although it was sold out, if you’d like to be notified if I ever offer this again, just fill out the form on this page: How to Develop Unshakeable Self-Esteem.

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11 comments… add one
  • Francisco Mar 26, 2015, 6:58 pm

    Victor, thanks for the article , once again, it is very inspiring.
    Nonetheless, own values can change in someone’s lifetime, afterall.

    It is admirable the act to stand up for your own values,but in reality, it is otherwise.

    As some people said, in a hard economic crisis , is very difficult to think about morals and values at the end of the day.

    • Victor Cheng Mar 28, 2015, 11:35 pm

      Francisco,

      It’s not a value if you’re willing to break it when times get tough.

      For example, everyone I know values human life. If they got laid off and were broke, I’m pretty sure they would not murder anther human being to get by. Hence, human life is a value.

      The thing with values is you don’t really know if those are values you hold dear unless you’ve been tested by the adversities of life. It is only when you are pushed to the edge and you stand by your values, and you suffer because you stood by you values, that you get confirmation as you to your values, otherwise, they aren’t vslues merely preferences.

      Victor

  • Attila Apr 6, 2015, 11:42 am

    This is probably the most important article at Caseinterview.com. I deeply agree that real values that are battle tested.

    On the other hand I found that it’s much easier to leave by values at places where there are a supporting environment, where the majority of a team / department / company / nation are driven by the same basic values.

    I’m an Eastern European grown up in the socialist regime and as a management consultant worked at several more developed “western” countries. I have experienced that in those countries people in general tend to have more solid for me higher ethical values than in my country.

    I believe that proper values are the major success factor not only for an individual life but for the progress for a whole nation as well.
    Unfortunately if there are a confrontation between the value system of an individual and her environment it is very difficult to keep the values, I see Francisco’s point.

    Attila

    • Victor Cheng Apr 7, 2015, 8:41 pm

      Attila,

      I completely see Francisco’s point as well. Whether one’s values conflicts with one’s employer or one’s nation, it is only in that moment (and not before) that one realizes this value is actually my value (as opposed to someone else’s values that I’ve adopted for the time being).

      It is VERY hard to face that decision.

      One natural response is to leave the environment that conflicts with one’s personal values.

      The much harder one, which also fascinates me, is to stay in the “hostile” environment while still holding on to one’s own values without going crazy in the process. I don’t know if that is possible or if it is possible for long. It’s something I wonder about.

      -Victor

      • Peng May 26, 2015, 11:13 pm

        Victor,

        Great post and I agree with you fully. Actually one of the Chinese proverbs says “小隐隐于野,中隐隐于市,大隐隐于朝”, meaning “Mountain forest is but a temporal retreat; madding crowd is the real place to sequester.” (I borrowed this translation from an online source).

        Most of us only have the courage to choose the environment that shares similar values as ourselves, where it takes even more courage to remain in a different environment but keep your own value (and for a long time!) and strive to change the environment in the future. It’s arguable which is wise – we all have just one life.

        • Victor Cheng May 28, 2015, 3:17 am

          Peng,

          I think the environment rarely changes or if it does only after exhausting tremendous amounts of energy. In re-reading my earlier reply, I think it is possible to hold on to ones values in an environment that conflicts with those values. The problem is it consumes a lot of energy and there’s an opportunity cost to that energy loss.

          Victor

          • Saran Dec 18, 2015, 6:25 pm

            Exactly..I think that is what Peng also says..What is one’s opportunity cost? After all you have only one life to live.

            Will he/she end up spending her time and energy in just trying to be good among million other bad people, when the world thinks bad is the new normal and being good as not realistic?

            I don’t think one moving to a place where it is more conducive to practice his values should not be seen as a failure. It is just their preference.

            Also, one should play by their strengths and not weaknesses. One place might consider a person’s value (like honesty) to be a weakness whereas other place might treat it as a normal expectation. In that scenario, it enables the person to focus on better things in his life, whatever that may be.

            Saran.

  • Patti Apr 7, 2015, 2:18 pm

    Victor, insightful article and as a breast cancer survivor, I agree with your assessment regarding values. It is when a person is put to the test that they discover what they believe and what their value system is. How we act in those circumstances and how we face them says a lot about what we value. That obstacle that we are faced with will bring out our true colors and can help us define our belief and value system.

    • Victor Cheng May 28, 2015, 3:18 am

      Patti,

      Well said. And congratulations on surviving breast cancer.

      Victor

  • Jessica Aug 6, 2015, 4:55 pm

    A very inspiring article, and a nice change of pace from the more “typical” case interview articles. This is something that more people need to read!

    On a personal note, I bombed my case interview for my summer internship at EY’s Financial Services Office in NYC, but was given an offer because of the way in which I explained my values during the experiential component of the interview. My interviewer told me that he found my outlook and insights refreshing, and that my strong commitment to my values helped him overlook the errors that I made during the case portion. So, having values that you truly believe, and can communicate, pays off!

  • Attila Feb 8, 2017, 10:41 am

    Hi,

    This article got a fresh meaning for me with the election of the new president of the US.
    A friend of mine, professor at Harvard University, told his close friends before the final day of the election he would move to Canada or to the EU with his family, in case Trump would win. He couldn’t yet.

    This is an example of a situation where even extraordinary people sacrifice their value system, or I might say, realign it to the situation because is VERY hard indeed to keep it in an unfriendly environment.

    It’s really sad to see for a foreigner as me that many fundamental elements of the modern american value system: respect of diversity / nature / science / honesty / personal opinion are under attack this time in the land of freedom.

    As a Hungarian unfortunately I have deep experience, decades with unfriendly regimes and dictator type leaders. I can say the result of this in my land: institutionalized corruption, skepticism – untold opinions – fear among people, stagnating / slowly than others progressing economy, migration of the best people to more developed and more democratic countries (most of them never come back), steep decline in the quality of the education, decreasing population.

    I believe a different story will take place in the US because there are many- many people having solid fundamentals and there is a strong tradition of fight for rights and for the truth.

    Attila

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