If we know any person well in this world, it should be ourselves. I’m sure that after fifty-four years on this planet, I should have a pretty good idea of who I am, what I believe, and how I want to live. Yet, in looking back over my life, I realize that a complete lack of self awareness has been my most obvious trait. Interestingly, that’s not an uncommon characteristic in the contemporary age. 

In the first act of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” the lead conspirator Cassius speaks to Marcus Brutus, trying to convince him to join the plan to assassinate Caesar. As the two men cautiously measure their words, feeling out the other’s inclinations, Cassius asks “Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?” It’s a rather poetic way of suggesting Brutus might not acknowledge who he really is and what he really thinks, especially in regards Caesar’s growing threat to the republic Brutus so dearly loves. In theater the heart of tragedy is often when a character comes face-to-face with his true identity, which can be inspiring or crushing.

The challenge to know and acknowledge our true identity is at the heart of all existential questions about the meaning of life and individual lives. Often our true identity is more clear to others than to ourselves. For much of my life, other people have held up a mirror to my face and subtly or bluntly showed me who I am. Similar to Cassius clarifying to Brutus his vexations, friends have basically said, “Since you know you cannot see yourself, so well as by reflection, I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself that of yourself which you yet know not of.”

For example, I went to college to be a history teacher, never knowing my true passion was the art of language and the teaching of writing. I used to meet friends outside the English building where they took a poetry class together. We’d play hacky sack and frisbee and listen to John play guitar. “You should take this poetry class,” they told me. “You’d like it.” Though I initially scoffed, I eventually took the class and another from the same professor. 

The following semester over beers one night, my roommates said, “You talk about your English classes all the time, but you never mention your history classes. Why aren’t you an English major?” I stared at them dumbfounded, then changed my major the next day. Like many English teachers, I spent my early years as an aspiring novelist, to no avail. Fortunately, I later found success in the nonfiction world, which has produced the bulk of my writing. It took my friend Daniel saying, “You know, you have a lot of success publishing nonfiction, yet you always write fiction. Why do you think you’re a novelist?” 

Even my wife pointed out to me in our late twenties that I actually did want to get married and have kids. It wasn’t that she wanted something I didn’t. She just wasn’t going to waste time in a relationship that didn’t have common goals. As it turns out, we are each other’s one and only, and our family has been my greatest blessing. Amusingly, our friends in college knew we’d become a couple long before it occurred to us – they asked to be invited to our wedding long before we ever dated. Self awareness can be elusive.

Often people identify themselves by their jobs, though it’s a weak substitute for identity. What we do is not who we are, and the distinction between action and identity is a tricky one. In a world where work hours are less defined by the punching of a clock, the notion of identity linked to jobs is increasingly complicated. I often ask the kids in my class, “Are you a student?” While they think they spend most of their time in school, the reality is that that school is, in many ways, a small part of who they are.

In numerology, 2024 is an “eight year,” meaning the numbers add up to eight. Eight years are years to “take action” and become who you really are. This year may be the time to finally get up and on to whatever comes next in our lives. I still recall my dad saying, even in his fifties, “I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.” I know the feeling.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko