I spent most of my 20s and part of my 30s in grad school. The plan was to teach, to be a college professor. Over the course of a handful of degrees, I studied philosophy, religion, gender studies, and photography. Those might seem like disparate fields, and in many ways they are, but the thread that united them for me was a deep curiosity about the human experience, specifically the limits that come with being human.
Several years ago, I left that part of my story behind and fully transitioned to working in startups. Now, when I introduce myself in a professional environment, the mention of my academic background usually raises some eyebrows and some questions. There’s a desire, it seems, to find the thread that ties my academic career with my business career. There’s also a curiosity about what I studied, what I learned, and if it’s now relevant in any way to what I do in business. (Short answer: not really, but kinda.)
As I look back on my time in academia, studying the human experience, if there’s one thing I learned, one takeaway, one thing I feel really certain about (and actually feel compelled to share), it’s this: Being human is hard.
There’s a built-in frailty to being human – what philosophers of a certain generation would refer to as our finitude (our finite-ness). Being human means being limited, not knowing, being long with questions but short on answers. We hurt, we lose, we die. It’s why religion, community, and family are so important to us; they provide us with frameworks, rituals, traditions, and beliefs that help us be human.
Being human is hard; it’s such an odd thing to say – perhaps both too clinical and cynical at the same time. But it does a good job for me of capturing what feels fundamentally true about what all of us are doing every single day, whether we would use those exact words or not. And though it may seem like a bleak observation, it actually strikes me as hopeful – it gives me both comfort and purpose to look at my life through this lens.
Years ago, when I first discovered Buddhism, I was struck by the core principle of compassion, sometimes called loving-kindness. I quite easily confuse compassion, sympathy, and empathy – in my mind, they’re all synonyms for the other, but I’m aware there are distinctions. What they all have in common for me, as does loving-kindness, is an orientation toward others that includes acceptance (I don’t judge you); acknowledgment (I see you as you are; I hear you); and value (You remain at your highest worth, even when you may feel the lowest).
All of these words – compassion, empathy, sympathy, loving-kindness – place great value on the other and attempt to see them for who they actually are right now and then to pull them close, rather than reject them. All of these words have an idea of togetherness or in-this-together-ness. “Being human is hard” is another way of saying, “We’re in this together.”
My therapist Hal tells me that everyone suffers from some version of imposter syndrome – to which I immediately (and ironically) call bullshit; has my therapist even seen Instagram? There are secure, beautiful, successful winners everywhere! Those people clearly don’t have imposter syndrome. Hal would say they do, and he’d probably also say that’s why they work so hard for me to think they don’t.
Imposter syndrome is a charged topic. As a concept, it’s been criticized for being both too narrowly defined (for people who are privileged enough to have access to the idealized state) and too widely defined: If everyone experiences some form of imposter syndrome, is it a syndrome at all, or just part of being human? Because of that, I think of it as the belief that only some of us are humans while others are super-humans; it’s the fallacy that being human isn’t enough. For me, that sums up what I’m really after when I say “being human is hard:” acknowledging that we all struggle, we all hurt, and, on some level, we all don’t know what the hell we’re doing.
For as much formal education as I have, there’s not a hell of a lot I feel certain about. This may be the one thing. Selfishly, it’s a message I need to hear. But it’s also a message I want others to hear, because ultimately none of us need to be anything more than human.
Here’s to being a human.