Michel Foucault’s biographies often classify him as a French philosopher, historian, psychologist, and Marxist. When he was inquired about what he was, later in life, he responded with these words: “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning.” At first, his words might clash with some of us. How can we live not knowing who we are? This is what we all live for in this current world. We live to decipher the what of our existence and the why of our place here. But Foucault’s words hold a wisdom that most discover at the dusk of their lives, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
We all recognize that feeling of being in a stage of wondering. We wonder who we are, what we are, and what we are meant to do. All of us have struggled with these conundrums in one measure or another. And when Foucault says that it is not necessary to know exactly what we are, it’s understandable to feel rage and think he is wrong. How can he say that it is not necessary? The world tells us that it is essential to know who we are, that we must find our place, that we need to fit a position—as if each one of us were just one thing, belonged to just one place, and fitted just one mold of prescribed proportions. This is the thing that Foucault understood, and the world still doesn’t. We are not static machines. The human mind and the human character are so complex and intricate that it is an insult to try to define them exactly.
Foucault says that it is not necessary to know exactly what we are. Not only is it unnecessary, it is also impossible. We know we will never get to meet another person entirely. But the same is true of ourselves. We can never be sure of exactly what we are, because we are constantly changing. We are always growing. We continue learning until the last day of our lives. We can never be entirely sure of who we are, because by the time we get close to finding out who we are, we are already someone else. And there’s nothing wrong with this. It would be sad if we didn’t change. We would always act like a kid; we wouldn’t work on our weaknesses; we wouldn’t unlock our hidden potential. And this is what Foucault tackles next in his answer.
Our goal is to become someone else that we were not in the beginning. Both in life and work. There’s always room for improvement. We should always be willing and eager to improve. To be kinder. To be gentler. To be braver. To stand up for justice. To love more. We should strive to outgrow our old selves. When we were born, we knew nothing. We couldn’t speak, we couldn’t walk, we couldn’t feed ourselves. As time went by, we learned to forgive, to tolerate, to love. It is impossible to face the challenges of life with the same equipment we brought when we started the journey. We grow, we change. At the end of life, if we are blessed enough to reach old age, we will find ourselves in the same position. We won’t be able to speak, we won’t be able to walk, we won’t be able to feed ourselves. The circumstances will be the same, but, for certain, we will not. Our thinking is going to change. Our being is going to change.
In the workplace, the situation is not very different. If we are asked to work in something that we have never seen before, we don’t say, “No, sorry. I don’t have those skills. Maybe choose
someone else.” That’s not what we say if we care about our jobs. We jump to the task, learn the new skills, and fulfill the job. We shouldn’t be content with staying stuck. Our target should be to continue learning and improving, so that we can continue developing our potential and being of service to others.
We don’t need to know exactly who we are; we don’t need to know every single detail of our beings to lead a good life. This was Foucault’s main point. As long as we are better than we were before, we will be doing it right. As long as we continue improving upon ourselves, we will be in the right track. The goal is to be someone else that we were not in the beginning, because at the beginning, we knew less than what we know now, we could do less than what we can now. Let’s live being better every day. The phrase “Be yourself” is inaccurate and outdated. Do not be yourself, be the best version of yourself.