You’re at a party and are introduced to someone you find extremely attractive who asks about you. What do you say?

A senior executive is interviewing you for what you’re sure is your dream job and asks you to talk about yourself. What do you say?

You’re ready to buy a co-op in Manhattan and have found one you like. Your financing is ready, and the only thing you’re waiting for is approval by the co-op board. You’re called for an interview and asked about yourself. What do you say?

Think about the myriad occasions that require you to describe yourself and what you say each time. Sometimes you put on a front, and sometimes you tell the truth. In your own mind, you’re clear about when you’re doing which. But the odds are good that you haven’t given much conscious thought to the question of who you are. I’m suggesting that every time you begin a sentence with “I am…” and add something, anything, to the statement, you’re being superficial and not quite accurate.

I will readily grant that you don’t intend to be dishonest.

You’re more likely like Arthur Simpson — Peter Ustinov’s Oscar-winning role in the movie Topkapi — who was unaware that the car he was driving to Istanbul was loaded with illegal arms. But, as in his case, the ignorance still costs you.

Let’s start with the proposition that who you really are is something that is true all the time, something that can never be taken from you. That whatever your description is, it should be universally true and incorporate all your observations. You don’t want to ignore any data!

Bear with me as I postulate some horrible scenarios and try to ram home the idea that the model(s) you use to describe yourself are faulty and/or incomplete.

Do you describe yourself as John, the software engineer?

That can easily be altered. You can change your name and become Joe. You can go to school and learn a new trade or just decide to become a beach bum. If you then describe yourself as Joe the beach bum, that too can change.

Do you define yourself in terms of relationships — X’s child, Y’s spouse, Z’s parent, and so on? What if X, Y, and Z all perish in a calamity? Do you still identify yourself with those relationships by tacking the word former onto the descriptions?

In any case, all relationships vanish when you’re dreaming or in deep sleep. They disappear completely, no matter how strong they are in your waking state.

How about your body? This is a major locus of identification.

Who you are ends at the tip of your nose — or the curve of your midriff. A bullet passes between the fingers of your hand, and you say you’re delighted because it missed “me.”

What if I were to take a machete and chop off your arm at the shoulder in a messy enough fashion that even the most skilled microsurgeon couldn’t sew it back on. After you recovered, what of the severed limb, now shriveled and lifeless?

Would it still be yours? If it were cut or burnt, would you still feel that “I” was hurt?

What if you were afflicted by a degenerative nerve disease that left you “locked in” — a condition in which you have no means at all of communicating with the outside world? No vocal chords, no gestures, no eye-blinking to painfully spell out words? Would you still identify with your body?

Do you identify with emotions — anger, fear, hate, jealousy, joy? All these come and go, as you well know.

What about your thoughts? Descartes famously and incorrectly proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am.” Thought arises in you because you exist, so he got it precisely backward.

Let’s go deeper. Whatever you can observe is not you, and I invite you to observe your thoughts. You’re not used to doing this, but with a little bit of practice, you can do so easily. You observe yourself thinking and being angry, roiling with emotions.

So that’s not who you are.

Whatever you add to the statement “I am…” can be refuted. The descriptor can change. It disappears in the dream and deep sleep states. It’s not something that is immutably and forever you. Try all the various ways in which you are prone to describe yourself. Each of them is valid, but only partially and only in a particular set of circumstances.

You play many roles — child, parent, lover, friend, employee, concerned citizen — and each of these is who you are, but none of them is who you are all the time. You slip into and out of these roles with the ease of a chameleon changing color.

Think about this. Who are you really? Who are you all the time? What is it that never goes away, that can never be refuted? What is it that persists right through your dream, deep sleep, and waking states?

Give up? The answer is simple, and you’ll recognize it readily when I tell you. The only thing that never goes away is your awareness, the observer that knows you exist. “I am” is the constant. Not “I am…” followed by a qualifier.

That consciousness that you exist is with you like the screen that underlies all the movies that play in a theater. It never goes away. It’s there in the waking state and in the dream state, and it’s what lets you know that you slept well — or didn’t — when you awaken.

You are that consciousness.

Why didn’t this occur to you? Because you’re always surrounded by it and never away from it; it has always been and will always be who you are. So you are not conscious of it, just like you’re not conscious of the air you breathe, and the fish is unaware of the water in which it swims.

What is consciousness, and what can you do to identify with it and not the transient roles that you assume? You can learn this and more in my new book (from which this essay is excerpted), Happiness at Work — Be Resilient, Motivated and Successful, No Matter What. Visit www.srikumarsrao.com to buy the book. You can also follow me on Twitter: @srikumarsrao.

[Ed. Note: Figuring out who you really are won’t happen overnight. With Dr. Rao’s Personal Mastery Success Program, you’ll get all the tools you need to make a break with all the “roles” you play in life, as well as block out negativity and disappointment. Soon, you’ll be living your life to its true potential.]

C. NewcastleDr. Rao received his Ph.D. in Marketing from the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University. He has an M. Phil. in Marketing from the same school in addition to an M.B.A. from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. His undergraduate training was in Physics at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University.

He conceived the pioneering course Creativity and Personal Mastery. This is the only business school course that has its own alumni association and it has been extensively covered in the media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Times, the Independent, Time, the Financial Times, Fortune, the Guardian, Business Week and dozens of other publications.

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