Who Do You Want to Be?

Our journey to a better life starts with one of the more existential and abstract questions out there.

Who do you want to be?Who do you want to be?

If you are a long-time reader, then you know that this will go somewhere far more practical soon. If you’re new around here, (welcome!) I promise we’ll get to nitty gritty by the end of this article. Bare with me.

It’s easy to skip over the abstract, big-picture questions as we rush to the practical application. Life hacks are popular for a reason. We don’t think we have the time or capacity for the deep thinking and introspection required to address big issues.

I’m not judging! I’ve been there. Hell, I’m still there most of the time. But we’re going somewhere else for January. We’re going deeper.

So here we go.

Figuring Out Who You Want to Be

There are a number of different ways to address this question. I’m going to discuss a few different approaches that I’ve seen and you can take the approach that makes the most sense for you.

If you want, feel free to try more than one! I highly highly highly recommend actually going through and spending some time completing at least one of these exercises, though. As I noted above, it is easy to read and move on because this is abstract and does not provide us with immediate to do list items. I include this warning mostly because I’m the type of person that would ignore it. It’s worth the time, though.

From here on out today I am going to explore a few different methods of thinking through this issue and follow each with some action steps that you can use to implement your findings and help build a better you.

Start With Your Death

The first approach that I want to discuss is the most common: Imagine your funeral.

This may seem a bit morbid, but it makes sense. One of the seven habits of highly effective people is to begin with the end in mind. If you’re trying to live your best life, then the end is your funeral. (Or, for a slightly less morbid version of this exercise, your death bed.)

The death bed version of this exercise is to imagine that you are looking back on your life on your last day. What do you regret? What do you wish you spent more time doing? What do you wish you did differently?

The more common approach is to think about your funeral. What would be said in your eulogy? What would people say about you when talking with others at your wake?

The most effective version, in my eyes at least, is one suggested by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy in their book Living Forward. In their book, Hyatt and Harkavy recommend a systematic approach to the funeral exercise.

First, imagine that you died in the very near future. What would people say about you at your funeral? What would the eulogy be? What would your spouse say? Kids? Parents? Friends? Colleagues? Community members? Make a list of everyone whose opinion matters to you and make note of what they would say based on the life you have lived up to today.

Next, think about your ideal funeral far in the future. What would those same people say there? Make your list. Write it out.

Compare the two. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

What areas are you already living your ideal life? Where are you lacking?

(For another take on this idea, check out Jason’s recent article at Winning Personal Finance.)

Make a Plan

To create action steps based on this exercise, take that last question first. In what areas of your life was there a gap between your immediate funeral and your ideal funeral?

Once you identify those gaps, make a plan to close them.

Did the ideal version of you spend more time with family? Then make a plan to spend more time with your family. Cut back on work, even if it means spending less money and taking a lower-paying job. Plan more outings with your kids. Schedule a weekly date night with your spouse.

Did the ideal version of you do more to support your community? Make an effort to find places that you can volunteer. Be more mindful of people that need help around you. Look for opportunities to support others.

You get the picture. Systematically work your way through each aspect of your life and each gap between your immediate funeral and your ideal funeral. Make a plan to address each.

Then, decide which is most important to you and start working on that immediately. Make a plan to start working on the others once you build some good habits with your primary area of concern.

We never know how much time we have left, so make sure you start with the most important things first. And make sure you start as soon as possible.

We Are What We Pretend to Be

Another exercise that I want to explore is one that I wrote about previously, although in much darker circumstances.

This is one that I created based on the novel Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. In that story, a writer becomes a Nazi propagandist in order to spy for the Americans. He provides broadcasts for the Nazis that includes coded information to aid the American war efforts.

In his heart, he is doing everything that he does to help take down the Nazis. But to do so, he comes up with more and more bombastic and effective propaganda in support of the Nazi party.

After the war, he sees how much harm his propaganda has actually done. How much support and encouragement he has provided to honest-to-goodness Nazis around the world. He was only pretending to be a Nazi, but his actions helped real Nazis that were not pretending in the least.

The lesson he wants to leave the readers with is that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Pretending Your Way to Greatness

I fully believe that this applies in both directions. A good person can cause a lot of harm by pretending to be a bad person. But an average person can become a great person over time by continuously pretending to be a great person.

This is a more practical application of the idea to “fake it ‘til you make it.”

Decide on the type of person that you want to be, and then act like that person. If you consistently act like that person, then those actions will become second nature. When the actions become instinct, then you become the person that you were pretending to be.

Do It For the Kids

A variation on this is one based in parenting advice that I recently read.

“Be the kind of person you hope your kids will become. And then spend enough time with them that they learn how to become that person.”

Harley Rotbart

This is similar to the Vonnegut idea. Instead of thinking “What kind of person do I want to be?” we think “What type of person do I want my kids to become?”

The outcome is the same, however. We create an idealized version of ourselves and then start working our way towards becoming that idealized version.

Journaling to a Better You

For this, I think the best approach is an evening journal exercise.

What type of person are you trying to become? Did you act like that person today? If not, what could you have done differently?

A journal allows you to take a few minutes to think through the way you acted during the day. When done consistently, a journal will make you more mindful of the types of actions that you want to take.

Maybe you want to be a more compassionate person. At the end of the day sit down with your journal and think through your interactions with others. Were you as compassionate as you could have been? As you wanted to be? What would the ideal compassionate version of yourself have done in that situation?

Taking the time to analyze these encounters and think through what could have gone differently in an ideal world prepares you to be better the next time you encounter something similar.

Think of it like watching game tape between football games. Maybe you didn’t make the perfect play this time, but the next time you see that same defensive set-up, you’ll know how to respond.

Over time, your intuition will grow quite strong and you will be able to be your ideal self without thinking. You’ll be able to call the game like Tom Brady.

Like with the funeral exercise, I recommend starting with one area of improvement that you want to work on. It is great to want to make a lot of improvements, but you don’t get any points if nothing sticks and you give up. The best chance of getting change to stick is by addressing one problem at a time and giving it your full attention.

Join the Conversation!

Whether you use one of the methods discussed above, or come up with your own, I highly recommend that you take the time out of your day to step back and think: What type of person do I want to be?

We need to spend more time on big picture questions like this if we want to live wholesome and fulfilling lives. It is easy to barrel forward. It’s hard to be thoughtful.

Have you tried one of these exercises? What did you find? How have you implemented your findings? Got any other exercises or approaches that you prefer? Let us know in the comments!

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13 thoughts on “Who Do You Want to Be?”

  1. As usual, I think we are on the same wavelength. See my post linked below about what I want to be said at my funeral.

    I love your point about pretending. In your career, around your kids or elsewhere. The more you pretend to be who you want to be, the closer you are to becoming that person. I figure the more I pretend to be a personal finance expert, the quicker I’ll get to FI and start living live 100% on my terms.
    Jason@WinningPersonalFinance recently posted…What Will They Say at Your Funeral?My Profile

    1. “Two specific questions came to mind:

      If I passed away today, what would be the highlights of my eulogy?
      How would they differ from what I’d want them to be?”

      You definitely beat me to this! I just edited the article to link to yours for more info. We went in the exact same direction.

      Thanks, Jason!
      Matt recently posted…How to Live a Better LifeMy Profile

  2. Can’t argue with the “Do it for the kids” as a dad of three, my wife and I often lead by example. As our children have gotten older, (teenagers now) its easier to discuss our actions, if they don’t seem so straightforward. Working backward is a way I have tackle problems in the past and a good exercise for mapping out a personal path. Thanks for the examples Matt.
    Brian recently posted…Financial Steps to Take Before DivorceMy Profile

    1. Thanks, Brian. It’s good to hear that this approach is working out for you. I have no real point of comparison in my own life, as my child is not even born yet, nevermind cognizant enough to pick up habits, so I’m glad to hear from you about your experiences.
      Matt recently posted…How to Live a Better LifeMy Profile

  3. The fake-it-til-you-make-it pretending route has worked for me in several areas. When you “act as-if”, your brain and emotions often catch up in time. A perfect example is someone who lacks confidence. He can review all the different ways confident people act, and emulate one thing they do. Even just assuming the posture of a confident person can work wonders. Pretty soon, you feel confident too.

    Well done, Matt! And Happy New Year!
    Mrs. Groovy recently posted…The Groovies are Movin’ and Groovin’My Profile

    1. Very true. I remember a study once that found that if you raise your arms in triumph before a job interview (out of sight of the interviewers, of course) you’re more likely to actually get the job. Just that one movement tricks your brain into giving you more confidence.

      Thanks, Mrs. G! And Happy New Year to you, as well!
      Matt recently posted…How to Live a Better LifeMy Profile

  4. I’m all about doing it for the kids. Even with great role models, some kids end up not making good choices and struggle in life. But it certainly helps if you work hard, show them that everyone makes mistakes, admit when you’re wrong, help those less fortunate than you, etc. I really need to do some more reading around “pretend your way to greatness” though. I appreciate it as long as the person isn’t telling others they are something they are not. I struggle with that a little in the PF community as people call themselves “experts” and have little to back it up. Not sure if that makes sense!
    Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions recently posted…We Don’t Need Anything This ChristmasMy Profile

    1. That makes lots of sense. It is a fine line between tricking ourselves into growth and misleading others about how much growth has already occurred.

      It also makes a lot more sense as an approach to building inner character traits. Acting like someone who is more kind will lead you to be more kind. Acting like someone who is rich may not necessarily make you rich. Acting the way a healthier person would will probably make me healthier. Acting the way an NFL player would will probably not make me an NFL player.
      Matt recently posted…How to Live a Better LifeMy Profile

  5. I’m with Mr. Groovy…you are a PF treasure, always making readers think deeply. Thinking about your own funeral and what would be said is a great way to see if you’re living the life you want to live. I’ll admit it’s kind of morbid and I have a tough time actually putting deep thought into it rather than thinking about it quickly as I read the post. As someone who is pursuing FIRE, I sometimes think I’ll live my intended life when I reach FIRE but that shouldn’t be the answer. The constraint of time is one thing I use as an excuse for not leaving that intended life (whatever that really is as I haven’t spent the deep thought to figure that out!)

    1. That’s very kind, Andrew. I often have that fear about FIRE blogging – that we are encouraging people to delay their happiness. It’s tough to find a balance. I think the FIRE people are right in planning for an uncertain future, but we have to make sure we are not putting everything off into the future because we never know how much time we’ll actually get for this life.
      Matt recently posted…Mapping Your Route to a Better LifeMy Profile

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