Finding Yourself vs Creating Yourself

There’s a moment in Scorcese’s Bob Dylan docu-fantasy for Netflix, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, where Bob Dylan is asked about the idea of “finding yourself”. His answer, excerpted below, is probably the most insightful moment of the film, and if the film were an essay, would stand as its thesis statement.

Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. Life is about creating yourself and creating things.

– Bob Dylan

In one sense, the answer is the perfect rebuttal to that terrible phase we all go through sometime around college- the phase of “finding ourselves.” There’s nothing wrong with trying on new hats, like that week where you tried so hard to be a guy who wears a fedora. But “finding yourself” still promotes the harmful idea that the real you is out there somewhere, whole and intact, waiting to be discovered.

Taken to its worst extreme- and I can definitely see this when I look back at my own twenties- we end up sitting around and waiting. We aren’t even looking anymore, we’re holding out for our future self- the grown-up version- to show up and find us- to lead us into a future that we have no ability to build for ourselves.

As you get older, you realize that most of your heroes didn’t sit around and wait to find themselves or be discovered- they journeyed off in search of themselves, maybe found nothing, but along the way created some semblance of a personality and unique point of view, mostly through hard-earned experience.

Bob Dylan, of course, is the king of making- and re-making- himself. His list of varied roles, from troubadour to trouble-maker, are now cultural archetypes. However, as he remade himself, he also remade the world around him, from the world of protest music and 60s rock to the 70s Nashville resurgence, and so on. The best and most effective version of creating yourself, then, bleeds out into the world, because whatever you create of yourself must bear some reflection on how you see the rest of the world- and how you’d like see it changed.

Scorcese’s film, like Dylan’s music, is an attempt at world-building, a term usually reserved for science-fiction and fantasy literature, but becoming more common in our world of “cinematic universes”. Even the subtitle, “A Bob Dylan Story”, has to be an intentional nod to film franchises like Disney/Marvel, and origin story episodes like Solo: A Star Wars Story.

I’m not sure Scorcese would appreciate the comparison to Marvel, but consider the fact that the film is littered with fictional characters representing archetypal narratives (e.g. Sharon Stone as the “teen groupie”, the “promotor”, the “visual artist”, and so on). These characters are clear archetypes or literary personas, crafted like comic book charaters or commedia dell’arte. During the original tour, Dylan works on a similar concept, Reynaldo and Clara.

As world-building moved from niche to mainstream, from the Tolkien nerds like myself to the globe-spanning popularity of video games like Minecraft, television shows like The Walking Dead, and the rest of the Disney-verse, we’ve seen a shift towards the appreciation of self-invention. The internet, social media, and blogging have pushed this idea of world-building, of self-invention to it’s next logical evolution. In a sense, we’re all a Bob Dylan or a Marvel character, documenting our lives with the additional ability of post-production and selective editing.

Of course most of us won’t rewrite the book on rock and roll, or rake in billions at the box office this year. Our worlds are somewhat smaller. But we still have some concrete ability to create and re-create them as we re-create ourselves. So why not do it with intention.