I hate self-help books and all their cousins. I don’t like anything that is designed to make you feel good without adding real value, making you more like a balloon inflated with air than a vessel filled with substance. I don’t trust anything that doesn’t take into account the complex, unjust nature of the world, including capitalism, imperialism, prejudice, the fact that so much wealth is made from illegal exploitation, and so on. Also, I am convinced such books are usually either useless or unethical. So, after staying away from them successfully for so long, I don’t know what possessed me to pick one up from my boss’s office where I worked at the time, and start reading.
I suppose a contributing factor might have been that it was about creativity, and I’d seen many self-help books in my life, but few, if any, were about successfully honing one’s creative skills and career. I cannot remember the name of the book, neither do I want to. It didn’t change my life, and it inspired only a mild interest within me to keep reading. Everything would have been fine if all I had done was finish the book and moved on to more relevant things. My tragic mistake was that I took a couple of the exercises recommended in the book too seriously.
One of such exercises was to reach out to someone who has achieved the career/life goal you aspire to, and dialogue with them on how they did it, for the purpose of being better able to map your own way. It certainly sounds wise enough; why not learn how to do what you want to do from people who have done it before, right? Hmm.
Part of the reason the idea didn’t sit right with me is that I am already shy and awkward (I know it doesn’t look like it to people who have met me, but that’s because when I feel obliged to engage, I over-compensate with loudness and imitation-extroversion). But much of my unease came from my own difficulty in finding anybody within my means of contact who fit that “prototype” for me. People were living bits and pieces of the life I wanted to cultivate, but each was a mere fraction of a composite, the complete embodiment of which I couldn’t identify in any single person.
In almost any other season of my life, I might have forgotten that book entirely, soon after I finished it. But in that season of my life, ironically enough, I was convinced that there was a Way™ to achieve things, that others before me had used that Way, and that if I didn’t find it, I’d be screwed. It’s ironic because it was in this season of my life that I was the most prolific and proactive with my creative work that I’d almost ever been. I was being intentional and innovative, steady converting my potential into products in the ways that felt most appropriate and genuine. But instead of trusting my process, I was scanning all around in the fearful belief that I had to follow someone else’s if I wanted to get anywhere.
That’s how I ended up reaching out to an accomplished but accessible woman via email in the month I finished the book, and then several months later, meeting her in person while she was on a visit to the USA state my college was situated in. I still regret it all, because I feel like I made a downright fool of myself, regardless of how earnest I may have been.
The emails were awkward. I wanted a long story and I got a “God made a way” kind of answer. It was insinuated that I’d get a long story in person, but in person, I still can’t remember getting anything but a “God made a way” kind of answer. All the potentially practical sides were too unique to her life and were wasted on me. The day of our physical meet-up didn’t go well, in my opinion. Coordination was messy, journeys were long, I felt like I was being babysat all day, and at the end of it all, I accidentally carted away a new piece of clothing she’d bought at the mall in my presence, which she’d intended to wear that evening—but by the time anyone realized, there was no turning back for me. Through no fault of hers (because it was entirely out of her hands that what I wanted couldn’t be gotten from her and that our personalities didn’t align enough to compensate for it), I felt like the day had been disappointing and wasted.
I’d started the day as an eager Ghanaian teenager with a fake flower in her hair, full of nerves and the silly hope that today, I might finally learn something that would accelerate my life and career. I ended the day deflated, confused and guilty (re: accidentally stolen clothes), and wondering why it seemed like I’d reached a dead end.
A year and a quarter later, when I unexpectedly found myself in the same room as this woman again, this time back in Accra, I had realized something essential that hadn’t been revealed to me by the time of our first meeting: I do not have role models (at least according to the way I interpret the phrase, which is what I believe is its most literal definition). There are many people whose works I enjoy, whose lives I admire, whose habits I envy. There are people I’m obsessed with (Jon Bellion!), people I think are insanely incredible individuals and/or artists. But upon examination of my vision and aspirations, as well as my body, mind, faith, ethics and my kind of creativity, I’ve found that nobody I know of really fits in line with the future version of myself in my head on the days when I dare to hope—not even Jon Bellion, who is the closest thing I could possibly have to a human role model.
That night, I was also surrounded by people I considered similar to her/in her league—whether in style, accent, career, age, Instagram aesthetic or social media follower count—and I felt remarkably out of place. Sitting amongst them, I couldn’t help but think, “Some might consider a lot of the people in this room to have ‘made it in life.’ Several people I know might someday love to be like, to talk to, or to ask for advice from these people. But their paths and mine are designed very, very differently. So are our personalities.”
On June 30th, 2016, I posted a now-deleted photo to Instagram, and this was the caption:
“I am not the next Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I am not the next Toni Morrison.
I am not the next Jackie Hill Perry; Zadie Smith. Ama Ata Aidoo. Not even the next Chinua Achebe.
I am not the “next” anyone. I am the first.
I am the first Ivana Akotowaa Ofori. I am the only one of me.
Understand this: I am not my heroes. I am a new force. Influenced. Not a duplicate.”
I was on to something back then, and I should have held on to it with greater intentionality. There was a process that had already begun taking place within me, a subtle yet profound recognition that the work my favorites were producing, while excellent, would not and should not be forced to come out of me. Their personalities—at least the fragments which I had access to, considering the distance between us which the internet and other tools barely filled—were significantly misaligned with mine. I realized that no matter how much I admired any of my heroes, not a single one of them was a prototype of the person I wanted to be, or what I wanted to do with my life.
There is no prototype for Ivana Akotowaa Ofori. Therefore, actively trying or waiting to find one is fallacy.
I’m under no illusion that this condition is exactly the same for everybody. I suspect there are more people in my life who have role models pɛpɛɛpɛ than don’t. People who they look up to who are living their lives or performing their careers almost exactly how they would want to. I feel like people like myself are either very rare or otherwise quite numerous but just haven’t come into deep enough knowledge of ourselves yet.
It would be a lie to say that coming into this type of awareness isn’t scary, lonely and difficult. How do you know what you want to achieve is possible, when you’ve never seen it done before, the way you want to/have to achieve it? Everything is faith, and as with the invalid man Jesus healed by the Bethesda pool in John 5, one doesn’t need the healing water to be healed—even if everyone around them is being successfully healed by the very same water. But there is also great freedom in knowing that there is no prototype. You don’t have to constantly worry about if you’re accurately following some script. Every mistake you make will be your own, and every success might happen by delightful mistake. The most important part of the journey, however, is knowing clearly what your work is, and doing it; what your goals are, and reaching for them. If you understand that others might not or do not understand, it makes it easier to avoid letting them sway you into doing work that isn’t your work.
We all need clarity and focus. As I struggle to align myself with these every day, I’m not sure I’m the one with enough resources to help anybody else to do the same. What I do know is how toxic it is for me to keep looking everywhere for directions which nobody I know is equipped to give me. I need to be discerning enough to ask for useful assistance when I know I need it. I need to know how to trust God to direct me in my unique task. Such discernment involves soaring levels of self-awareness. For now, it suffices to anchor myself with the practice of waking up every morning and reminding myself to face my Creator, face myself, and then face my work. You don’t need a prototype when you’re aligned with your own purpose.