How to get a better sense of who you are

I’m great at remaking myself. I’ve been a pro-volleyball player, a serial entrepreneur, a stay-at-home mom. I’ve modeled nude and I’ve stood as a spokesperson for education reform.

The hardest part about being able to remake myself so often is that I’m never sure who I am.

The other day my son said, “Mom, what’s your name right now?”

I said “Penelope”. I knew that was the right answer, because everyone in my life calls me Penelope. But it’s not my legal name. Adrienne is still my legal name. So sometimes, I get into trouble, and he sees it. Like the time we checked into a hotel and I had no ID for the name Penelope so I told the hotel clerk to look me up on Wikipedia. My son stood next to me the whole time, ostensibly eating free snacks in the lobby, but clearly the scene made an impression. (At airport  check-in he said, “Mom! Let’s use your Wikipedia page to go to the front of the line!”)

What I’m working on now is trying to see myself how I really am. I’ve been looking at this photo of me on the bed since last summer, when the Farmer took it. I think to myself: is that really what my body looks like? Because honestly, I hate my body. Sometimes I love it and I think I’m lucky, like I won the lottery in the body department. But now that my body is older I can’t stop thinking about how Demi Moore changed all the bulbs in her house so that she didn’t have to see herself in bad light.

It’s so hard to see yourself clearly until you have hindsight.

For example I just, in the last month, finally understood why I was paired with an absolute genius for junior varsity debate.

I figured it out by obsessively googling old debaters. For those of you who did not do high school debate – which surely is  most of you – what you need to know about it is that it’s so incredibly hard-core and time consuming, and the kids are so incredibly smart, that they all get straight A’s and are excused from any school activity they want to be excused from because they are so smart. (Look at this link. You will not believe how insane top-tier high school debate is.)

So in my extremely intense high school, everyone got tracked. And I was not on the super-smart track with the rest of the debate team. I was on the mediocre track, failing classes like chemistry and gym. (It is very difficult, by the way, for someone with Aspergers to move between classes in an efficient way. So I just stopped doing that. It never occurred to me that people fail gym. Or that gym is required for graduation. And I will just tell you right now, so you have a picture of what I was like in high school, that my senior year I had four periods of gym so that I could graduate. Which, actually, worked out ok for me because I didn’t have to switch classes.)

Back to debate. The sponsor of the debate team was Mr. McClain the former head of Northwestern’s debate team, which is a huge deal. You had to take a prerequisite class for debate, and he’d choose you if he liked you. In the prerequisite class, I did my final speech on how to juggle. I juggled the whole time I gave the speech. When I got to four balls, I dropped them a few times, so I was chasing them around the classroom but still giving my speech.

Mr. McClain said it was the best speech he had ever seen in his twenty-whatever years of teaching this class.

I thought he was lying and put it out of my mind.

Which means I had no answer for anyone when they asked me why I was slated as the top debater coming into the junior varsity debate team. Everyone is ranked. There are no secrets. My partner, Henry, was an absolute genius. Incredible genius. So far above me that it took me a few months to even understand that he was running circles around me.

People wondered why we were partners. I wondered too. Most teams traded off who gave the important speeches and who gave the more automated speeches. We stopped trading. Mostly because he had a fit that I was so much worse than him. But also, I loved that he did the hard parts. Policy debate is hard. It’s hard work to argue that the CIA should stop selling torture weapons to Honduras (yes, the CIA did that) and then have to deal with the argument that if you start regulating the CIA the US government will crumble.

Henry yelled at me often for not understanding things. “You must win the categorical imperative argument to win the thumbscrew argument!” he’d scream at me. And then he’d throw index cards full of Kant quotations over the tops of my books and I’d stare, wishing he would also tell me where to file them.

Then I realized: The reason Mr. McClain made me and Henry partners is because I did an amazing job with my juggling speech. And, actually, I’m an amazing speaker. Look, I make $15K a speech, talking with no notes, about a wide range of topics. And people love me.

The people on the debate team had a different kind of intelligence than I have. But I didn’t see that.

I wonder, what is the thing I don’t understand about myself today? I don’t want to take twenty years to figure it out every time. So I started looking for areas where I look like I don’t belong.

One of those is money. You know how the debaters looked at me and thought I was an idiot for not being as good as they are? People think about me that way with money. I make a lot of money, but I don’t have a lot of money. The Farmer has earned roughly $15,000 a year for every year of his adult life. And he has way way more money than I do because he doesn’t spend it.

I read a lot about how ENTJ’s are great with money. And I think, I must be great with money because I’m a hard-core ENTJ. But I don’t have money.

Then Melissa sent a quote to me from the story Bull, by Chinese author Mo Yanpublished in the New Yorker. And I love the quote. It describes me so well:

If getting rich had been on my father’s agenda, he’d have had no trouble becoming the wealthiest man in the village, of that I’m sure. But he was a dragon among men, and dragons have no interest in accumulating property. You’ve seen critters like squirrels and rats dig holes to store food, but who’s ever seen a tiger, king of the animals, do something like that? Tigers spend most of their time sleeping in lairs, coming out only when hunger sends them hunting for prey. Similarly, my father spent most of his time holed up, eating, drinking, and having a good time, coming out only when hunger pangs sent him looking for income.  … Father made his living by his wits.

Now I do not have to see myself as bad with money. I am with money like I am with juggling; I’m good with money, but in a different way from most people.

I want to have a great body like most people have a great body. But I don’t. I have a great body when my husband snaps a miraculously perfect shot of me as if we are shooting for American Apparel. (That link is NSFW.) But then I think, “Oh, but that’s the only way to have a great body today – with a camera and some distortions.”

And then I’m back to not knowing, really, who I am, or where I fit. The world is full of distortions – from the high school debate team and then everything going forward. Our job, as adults, is to sort out the distortions, across days and months and years. Because it’s a big project that we never finish, but the picture gets sharper and sharper.


39 replies
  1. Nan
    Nan says:

    Changing the lightbulbs would only give you more distortions and make it more difficult for you to sort out the ones that you have with regular lighting. You’re just fine as yourself even if at some moments it doesn’t feel that way to you or seem that way to others (note that these are probably completely different moments).

    I have to think more about this post, where the distortions are in my life and how I can change them.

  2. Lynn Lawrence
    Lynn Lawrence says:

    Penelope, I think you are a tremendous coach. You see between the cracks of many issues, not just careers and not just writing. And then you tell people the truth from your perspective. Extremely rare, that truth-telling.

    I have such a great visual of you at what I think is your best, it’s when you were on-camera editing the work of the submissions in your webinar “How to Write About Yourself.” Just Fab.

    When I was homeschooling, I fell in love with this movie “resolved” about policy debate:

    Then, a couple years later both my kids had the opportunity to participate and it grew new neurons.

    Not at all surprised you did policy, nor about the PE…I think we as a society will soon begin to embrace our differences, I think that a lot of the headaches we are experiencing stem from our inability to embrace “who we are.”

    Great Picture too!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks so much for the movie recommendation. I’m looking forward to watching it.


  3. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    I don’t think this post gives tips on how to find out who you are. A better title would have been Penelope ruminates on trying to figure out who she is. Penelope I need hard core advice for 2013, help us out here. PS policy debate rocks!!!

  4. The Dame Intl
    The Dame Intl says:

    I can really relate to this post. In my life, I worked straight out of high school, office jobs and waitressing and bar tending, then I became a stripper and that sent me in a tail spin towards becoming a dominatrix and in between I’ve volunteered as an animal care worker as well as briefly been hired as a stable hand. And I did all these things as the tiger, only really putting in effort when I was hungry – which incidentally leads to burn out. Now that I’ve finally discovered what work makes me happy, I feel I can bubble along happily like an animal that grazes.

    • Sadya
      Sadya says:

      This is what I really like about PT’s blog- the people who comment here are so interesting. I just checked out your blog Lisa, good stuff.

  5. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Every time you post a picture of yourself I am surprised again by what an attractive body you have, and I think, ‘she must actually get to the gym a lot more than she says.’ In fact, I just thought that today when I saw the picture up top, before reading the post. I know that’s an odd comment, but your post seemed to warrant making it.
    Funny that debate team turned out an actual professional speaker! Where are the rest of them?

  6. rgoltn
    rgoltn says:

    WHat a fantastic quote:

    “It’s so hard to see yourself clearly until you have hindsight.”

    I cannot agree more. At 45, I am learning to see myself clearly; who I am, what I want and what I am a strong at etc. The one thing I can say about hindsight is that it gives you perspective. At some point, you realize every interaction, problem, issue etc. of some kind is a different flavor of the same experience.

    You know how things will develop, how different people will react and ultimately how you will / should react.

  7. Laura
    Laura says:

    Given your childhood, I also wonder if you are not driven to have money by the experience of having money. Some of the wealthiest people I know are absolutely driven to make money in order to overcome childhoods spent in poverty, or close to it. Most of them are very smart. Likewise, some of the people I know with rock-solid marriages make them that way because they came from divorce. I think your childhood has a lot to do with your motivation, in addition to your personality.

    Everyone here needs to understand how hard core your high school is. Kids walk out of there and go on to become legendary movie stars, Secretary of Defense, Mayor of Chicago, rock star Hollywood agents — and you made the debate team!! You are my hero!

  8. Neeraj Bhushan
    Neeraj Bhushan says:

    Your ability to connect and express often helps me to rediscover and remake myself. Hope u remember one of our conversations, some three-four years back when I told you that it was your inspiration that truly gave me courage to identify myself on my blog. And I also remember the one incident when you, yourself being such a wonderful writer, DMed me on Twitter, as to how I had summarized one of your tweets! You are a rockstart, Penelope. Thanks for being… Penelope.

  9. Amelia
    Amelia says:

    Something I think about a lot is the difference between what I do and who I am.

    I’m an ENTP, so I have many ideas but a huge fear of commitment. As a result of my random interests and experiences, I often share completely different versions of myself when I meet new people depending on who they are and the situation. This makes me feel like I have no idea who I am. But it’s fun for storytelling, which I love. (Again, ENTP.)

    So I guess I have to wonder: are we made up of our activities? Or is there something essentially different about who we are as people? Are you defined as a volleyball player/entrepreneur/nude model/etc., or are those just things you’ve done?

    Perhaps we’re all just storytellers and we fit whatever plot we manage to write ourselves into?

  10. Francesca
    Francesca says:

    I just had a long conversation with my husband about exactly this. For me, it is trying to understand the balance between the outward facing me and the inward facing me. In my dreams, I’d like them to be the same person, but in reality they are starkly different. The things I love are not the things I do, regularly, the things I find fun are not the things I can easily get paid a lot of money for, the list goes on and on.

    As for what I “am.” I have been a salesgirl, a teacher, a speaker, a singer a designer, an international artist of sorts, a student, a mother, a writer, an “educator” (whatever that means), a “leader” (same issue) – but what I come to, again and again, is that I will never be “an” anything, at least not all the way. I can only be me, and look, as you say, in hindsight, to try to justify it.

  11. Tiana
    Tiana says:

    This quote rings so true to me:

    “The world is full of distortions – from the high school debate team and then everything going forward. Our job, as adults, is to sort out the distortions, across days and months and years. Because it’s a big project that we never finish, but the picture gets sharper and sharper.”

    It’s unfortunate that some of us walk through this life suffering from the distortions. Ignorance can be painful rather than blissful. Once we begin to sort through all the bullshit, we feel better.

  12. Traci
    Traci says:

    Penelope – I have been reading your blog for some time. I rarely comment, but I love your candid approach to issues and your frankness in talking about your life, your work, your marriage and your kids. As a female about to turn 40, working full time and raising two kids, I continually look at who I am, where I fit in and where I am going. I think this was one of your best posts yet. Love it! Keep up the great work.

  13. karelys
    karelys says:

    I think that you pick at the parts of your body you don’t like. Stop thinking that the shot was miraculous and had some distortions. Remember how you said we’re more similar than different? we’ll, that’s probably what most people see when they see you. It’s highly probable that they don’t see what you see in the mirror and they don’t judge you the way you judge your body. You can use that to give you a jump start in redoing the way you look at yourself.

    So most likely we all look at you and think you are good looking. Also, your nose is cool.

    I kept thinking I was fat (and in my mind at the time fat=ugly because I was immature) at some point of my life then I got fatter and looked at pictures and I thought “man! I looked great then! I wished I’d prance around in lingerie for my husband all the time instead of being embarrassed of the pot that forms in my belly.”

    But you know what? it doesn’t matter. And it has happened so often (highschool, college, my wedding, a friend’s bbq) that when I get feelings of being ugly I remember that and try to think of myself ten years down the road and how I’ll think I am stupid now at 25 for not appreciating what I have. Even with extra fat here and there but awesome muscle mass all over.

    That said, I don’t know what I look like sometimes, not so much body wise because I don’t care anymore, but in my personality. But little things, small instances where my character comes into play in a big way, gives me a glimpse of how far I’ve become. And I hold on to that tightly.

    In hindsight you’ll probably see how great you juggled being at home with kids and earning money and wish that you’d wake up everyday thinking “I am so awesome!” and just sit and sip your coffee making a little lagoon of time where you peacefully revealed how awesome you are doing.

    Use hindsight to project how you’ll feel in the future about your present now. That’s why I woke up early to do dishes. So I’ll look back and think that I am good at time management because I need that boost of confidence to ace an interview for a job that pays good money. I am not great at time management so I want to believe it when I say that I am working on it and that it’ll be no problem in a few months.

  14. Karen
    Karen says:

    You’ve talked about the “intersection” before. This is how you figure out who you are. When you’re around your opposite, the volume gets louder for your primary traits/talents/abilities. You were around this “smart” debater but somehow, you were able to sell your arguments with more “heart.”

    • Cheryl Chavarria
      Cheryl Chavarria says:

      Your blog posts, every one I’ve read thus far, is giving me validation for how I am, how I think, and for silly ways I have been led to think- its giving me many reality checks. Much appreciated! Love your raw voice. I’m inspired as a writer.

  15. Karen
    Karen says:

    PS — I sometimes wish you were 60 so you could give me 40 something self advice. This 40-something advice is so great for a 20-something.

  16. Holly
    Holly says:

    1. Our bodies. We see ourselves differently than others do. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.

    2. I just found your website and I love it, your advice, your thought process, etc.

    3. You’ve opened up a whole new window for me. I am 40 something, but never thought of my career how you speak of careers. I have always thought I’d just work my way by working hard and trying. I haven’t been aware of my value until recently, and that value has a dollar value and I have worth and this firm wouldn’t be what it is currently without me. Wow. That is a lot to digest.

    4. Thank you.

  17. D
    D says:

    My divorce shook my identity to the core. I won’t bore you with the details, but it set me on a years-long journey that I’m still on in some ways.

    The long and short of it is this: what you do and who you know are not who you are. Who you are is more fundamental, and it has much more to do with values, boundaries and willingness to be vulnerable than whether you turn in the TPS reports on time.

    However, if you suck at getting the TPS reports in, you’re very likely not doing something that’s congruent with your core purpose. This dissonance is a recipe for chronic, low-level unhappiness.

    • Jenn
      Jenn says:


      You are so right about who we are is our values, boundaries and a willingness to be vulnerable. Thanks for expressing it so succintly. I am still reminding myself of these things every day, so I am glad you emphasized this to me once again.

      Don’t know what TPS reports are, but similar things are happening over here in Jenn-land, and it does suck (thats my word for chronic, low-level unhappiness).

  18. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    You are SUCH an ENTJ. I love it, because you help me understand my ENTJ husband (I’m INFJ, and the Human Metrics marriage test told us we should be in marriage counseling because we’re so un-alike).

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, it might console you to know that my husband’s and ISTP and Human Metrics says that we are a perfect match (ISTP/ENTJ) and we are in marriage counseling all the time!


  19. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    How it works in our culture is that no woman who has a great body is allowed to feel good about that body, because there is always something to hate.

    It is possible that the angle of the camera miraculously morphed an ugly body into something beautiful for one fleeting moment. OR the distortion is internal.

    Forget lighting; I just stopped paying the bill until they shut the lights off. I am hot in the dark.

  20. kate
    kate says:

    I so identify. McClain was in his last year my first year- I only experienced him through a few Congress sessions at the end of freshman year- but then I was in the dynasty of Linda Oddo (and Doug Springer, an entity unto himself). Probably some of my closest friends from HS are the debaters. And some of the judges/coaches from the area now my colleagues (I coach speech for (gasp) GBN!) But it does tend to become a way of life- whatever you end up doing- you’ll always value that debate/speech experience. Thanks- the memories always pour back in.

  21. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    This blog post did give me a better sense of how I am.

    After reading it, the minute it came out of course, I was kind of disappointed. P. does all the woman worrying about her body stuff? How mundane, whatever.

    A flash this morning made me realize that my own method for making sure my body maintains a certain weight, look, health is different from many other people. And for that matter, how I make sure I do many things is, apparently, different from many other people.

    Other people go on diets, they have workout regimens, they like to broadcast what they are doing on runkeeper and fitness pal. They explain their food selections to everyone within earshot, they will expect wait staff in restaurants to tailor everything to their particular requirements, they will refuse food offered them at social events.

    I just eat what I know I should eat, I exercise as much as I can, I keep a pseudo-tally in my head, and I never ever tell anybody that I have any kind of plan or resolutions or anything. And I have pretty much remained at the same weight for my whole adult life. Which does not seem all that amazing to me until I look around and see people I know who go up and down in weight, and the whole while are throwing out vicious barbs at society and food companies and complaining about bloating and “Oh my god I’m sooooo stuffed”.

    My lightning flash came when I realized that my kind of wandering, goal-less, unadvertised, unplanned way of maintaining my weight is how I do everything. And it works for me. But it is very difficult to explain to someone else, and from an outsiders perspective it looks like I am doing nothing. And for so long I have accepted that view that indeed I’m not doing anything. But I”ve got apps keeping track of everything, and those apps are written exclusively for me, and they are all in my head.

    That’s an ISFP.

  22. Katie Dowd
    Katie Dowd says:

    I have read a lot about how this is a terrific blog to find out about job information, advice, resources, how to and so on and to get great perspective. The State Department just did a cool video to tell more people about the opportunities available in the Foreign Service and I just wanted to send the link in the event you watch and want to share with your networks.

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