Letters to Ellie: What I Would Change About My Younger Years

Another life-lesson excerpt from my letters to my daughter. We finally got to see her a few weekends ago for the first time in two months. Amazing.

When I was your age (12) I got into martial arts. I mean, really into it. Karate Kid had just come out, and tae kwon do studios were everywhere. I wore kung fu shoes to school, memorized the Bruce Lee movies, practiced moves on unsuspecting kids at recess, and even referred to myself as The Master (sigh). 


Lots of seventh graders have identity issues but I was a one-kid carnival show. Karate-guy was just one of many, in between breakdancer (complete with peroxided ducktail), skate punk, survivalist and weightlifter. Probably a rodeo clown and beatboxer in there too. 

I wanted to be respected, included, loved. And if I didn’t get that love, I would go all kung fu on myself. I had the shame of not being good enough, so struggled epically to earn people’s respect and to have them as friends. I just didn’t know how to do it. So it usually backfired as I willed these ridiculous characters into existence. 

As a younger adult, that fierce desire to fit in was still there. No more ducktail or nunchucks, but I still hungered for the drug of outside validation. 

This led to insufferable traits: boasting, raging and, perhaps most destructive, assuming the personality I thought would impress people, aka the “chameleon.” 

For business people, I would channel Richard Branson; for spiritual folks, Alan Watt; for hipsters, the guy into artisanal pickles and rare records. I could be anybody I thought they would like. One time I caught myself acting like someone into auto racing. As you well know, nothing could be further from my natural interest map than NASCAR.  

Most people work hard to look good socially, but stay true to their feelings. The chameleon will shape-shift for anybody and any situation. An indiscriminate Gumby selling out their feelings for inclusion. 

Awareness of the problem is a big step. But I would still find myself swept up into social situations without seeing it happen and I’d reflect on it later like Dr. Jekyll with a Hyde hangover: “Argh, I did it again, didn’t I?”

The bigger work was understanding why it was so important for me to impress. What happened that created this fierce desire to be admired. And ultimately realizing that my ego will get in the way of my happiness, both by setting a high bar for self-measurement and by making my happiness contingent on others. 

It’s that self-excavation work that helps us enjoy ourselves. Just like in Hollywood, we learn to love the bad guys when we know why they ended up that way. From Gru to Freddy Krueger, the backstory makes them sympathetic. 

So my advice would be to get to know yourself apart from egoic images. Catch yourself when you’re trying to impress and ask why. The more you learn to love your wacky, inner self, warts and all, the more you can let that self lead the way in life. And ironically, the more people will be attracted to you. 

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine” – Bruce Lee

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13 thoughts on “Letters to Ellie: What I Would Change About My Younger Years

  1. To be clear, you ARE In this world to earn my approval. Your blogged perspective here ain’t helping, Bruce. Now go strap on your barrel and slap on the red nose.

    Is “Rodeo Clown” really asking so much?

    PS Brewer is going to be PISSED about the NASCAR confession.

  2. I would love some more on this: “Understanding why it was so important for me to impress. What happened that created this fierce desire to be admired.” It sounds like you got somewhere fruitful on that line of inquiry. I wonder about that drive for admiration – tempered now, but not gone – in myself. Was there a widely applicable insight in what you discovered?

    1. Thanks for the note, Josh! Appreciate the support. I’m not sure it was a widely applicable insight, but I did do enough digging to realize there was some youngest child “got something to prove” mixed with abandonment mixed with thousands of years of tribal society DNA :). Would love to chat more on it over a beer sometime.

  3. I feel like a lot of people feel or have felt this way. I know I was one of those kids. I now look at my teenage niece and nephew and admire how they have a strong sense of who they are. I only wish I figured my sense of self at their age. Even though they will likely change as they grow, I alway tell them that I am proud of who they are today and to never change for anyone.

    Thank you for sharing your stories.

  4. Was having a llate lunch across from TJH at Scratch last month as school was let out. It could have been us! Styles of hair, clothes and shoes have come full circle from the mid 80’s to mid 00’s. But, the insecurities, challenges and stress seemed to be different from the looks on there faces… Most notable however, the ethnic diversity of the students that created a canvas of interesting kids being together and the systemic obesity. So, glad our country is not as homogenous as say, Italy or my home State of VT, yet we must invest more in good nutrition and eating habits for the youth of America.

    1. Oh man, the obesity is crazy. I would have thought all of our discoveries, innovation, available information and overall health awareness would have changed that. But it’s just getting worse. But at least they’re kicking it old school on the clothing.

  5. There are some of us that did not seek approval early and consequently that we would not get ahead. I wonder how far along I’d be right if I sought the approval as young as junior high.

  6. Hi Dave,
    I just saw the link to this post on Facebook and realized I missed the preceding posts going back to “Why I’ve Been Quiet.” I’ve now signed up to your blog to make sure I don’t miss a future update.

    I have many thoughts running through my mind right now, but three big things are bubbling up:

    First, thank you for sharing your journey. We heal in community, and it sounds like there’s an amazing community surrounding Ellie. It’s also clear from the comments others have left that there’s an amazing community surrounding you, April, and your family.

    Second, there’s a line you wrote – “be bold in opening up with who you are inside” – that I love. It reminds me of something someone said to me years ago when I began my recovery journey: “This is about finding the courage to show up in life as you really are.” I’ve come to appreciate that far more today than I did when I first heard it.

    Third, you’ve created a forum for people to say “Me, too.” (BTW 7th grade SUCKED for me because I was so uncomfortable. I desperately wanted to be anything other than a 7th grader.) There is something so powerful about that short, two-word phrase that cuts through the crap and brings us closer together.

    Rick, Rocket and I send hugs and love to you all.

    1. Ben, thanks so much for the nice note. You’ve clearly been “through it” and have learned a lot along the way. And yes, it’s all about honesty, community and purpose. Can’t really ask for much more at this phase of life.

      Really hope we can see you guys soon.

  7. Powerful stuff Dave. Thank you for sharing this. It makes me think deeply about the balance between healthy self sufficiency and the need for communal belonging.

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