Shifting Perspectives: How Change Reveals Our True Self
Written and Edited by Meng Zhang, Kate Brinksman and Elena Panagiotopoulou.
There is something enigmatic about childhood wonder, the ability to find magic in anything and seek out the inspirational. That is, if a childhood is one where it is permissible to be so free and inquisitive, and where stimuli abound. I was always drawn to the story of Roger Allers, at age five he discovered the magical world of Disney. Despite his young age, an experience with Disney left an indelible mark on his young mind, one that proceeded to shape the course of his life and career. After watching Peter Pan, Allers decided he wanted to pursue a career with Disney. A few years later he went to Disneyland specifically to get a DIY animation kit. The rest is history… Now, Allers is most well-known for co-directing the highest-grossing 2D animated film of all time, Walt Disney’s Lion King. For some people – such as Roger Allers - the ground that they stand upon remains relatively stable throughout life, with ideas and experiences forming early on that may lead to the eventual pursuit of a life goal.
My own path was not so straightforward. I wasn’t able to envisage far into the future, instead, at each step of my life future possibilities were only gradually revealed to me as China changed. I grew up in the Cultural Revolution of 1970s China, where my childhood was characterised by a completely different universe of social, economic and political structure from the one we’re living in now. A restricted mindset, material scarcity, stagnate state-owned economy and conformity were the norm. Original thought was not encouraged, in fact it was clamped down on. One was confined to this monotonous routine of thinking and living – hardly the best state of affairs for a young girl born with an innately creative, irrepressible spirit. As I grew up and recognised these artistic tendencies within myself, I was profoundly struck by the absence of colour in my life. The word grey has poor connotations: dreary, dull, lacklustre; yet, this was the predominant colour of my every day. Grey walls, grey clothing, the occasional injection of military green or blue; it was hardly inspiring.
At age three, I remember my Grandpa showing me a book of world flags, I didn’t understand the meaning of states or flags yet, what struck me was the abundance of colours. That book was a secret feast for my senses, and possibly the only truly colourful book I’d ever seen. I constantly returned to it, rescued by the vivid interplay of yellows, oranges, and blues from a world cocooned in grey.
Fashion was not a construct I was aware of whilst growing up. Style was monotonous. There was no eclectic variety or diversity as you see lining the streets of London, a place embodied by creative flair. I distinctly remember my mother owning a beautiful pair of shoes; yet, she never wore them. I remember asking her why this was the case, and she told me that the heels were too high for the mood of society – they were only 3cm. This perfectly reflects the attitude of China at the time, when creative expression through clothing was not encouraged; instead, one was expected to conform to the monotonous rigour of the society that we found ourselves embedded within. Living through this brutal period of Chinese history, my influences and resources were so limited that I was completely unaware of the potential of my creative nature. I could not possibly have envisaged the possibilities that lay ahead of me.
However, the ground beneath me began to shift. Over the course of the next 30 years, China changed tremendously. A deep transformation arose and rippled through all the core spheres of society: familial, political, cultural. As these deep-set changes occurred, my perspective began to shift in parallel. I began to realise that I could dream a little wider, and that my goals could reflect the life that I wanted to have, not the one I thought was predestined for me. I began studying Fashion in China at a time when luxury fashion brands had not even arrived in the country. Growing up, I had never laid eyes on a Chanel shop; yet, I ended up being appointed the Head Buyer of Chanel China in 2002, 4 years after the brand entered China for the first time. I forged a respectable career in the fashion industry in a fairly short space of time, and as I did this, I realised that my perspective had shifted again – after being opened up to the wider world around me. I embarked on a new chapter, pursuing an MBA in London that would enable me to fuse my two passions - art and commerce. The study was followed by executive positions with leading global companies, and subsequently I took on other new directions when I started my own lifestyle brand and set up a science and innovation platform. Some, such as Allers, know what their passion is by the age of five; I wasn’t one of those children. I have always been thirsty for knowledge, curious to the world around me and the boundless creative possibilities that I could follow. However, I followed a non-linear path, exploring various pursuits and living in different environments before I could recognise what I truly wanted out of life.
As my horizons widened, and my curiosity embraced new possibilities, I had to leave my new found comfort and stability behind, which was not the easiest process. We are all inclined to stay where we feel comfortable: it makes us feel stable, secure. For some, success comes without as many twists and turns; the wider socioeconomic context where they seek opportunities to grow and follow their true calling remains accessible from an early age. For others, constant change is necessary, figuring out the path of their lives for themselves. In my life, I constantly had to move out of my comfort zone and adapt to new situations, in an endeavour to find my life’s true calling. This change was, at times, painful, harsh and exhausting. It fundamentally challenged my sense of self and it made me feel as if I was losing parts of who I was. Yet, looking back now, I know that these profound changes were what allowed me to truly become myself.
The changing self is a recurring theme in philosophy. Confucius said that ‘’The superior man thinks always of virtue; the common man thinks of comfort”. Feeling comfortable is undeniably appealing; yet, following a more virtuous path of discovery means seeking our truest self, even if the path to get there makes us feel temporarily uncomfortable.
The self has long been theorised as dynamic, active and malleable. Cognitive neuroscience has identified that even our neurons - the most basic building blocks of our nervous system – are responsive to change, allowing the brain to re-wire itself. The brain is physiologically proven to be an adaptive organ, forging new synaptic connections through practice. This so-called neuroplasticity is a near-magical ability that we all have within us, as the brain adjusts when we immerse ourselves in new environments and constantly seek new forms of knowledge: from learning a new language to travelling around the world. However, the extent to which we are willing to apply this ability varies greatly, depending on how we approach life and how thirsty we are to learn.
According to Aristotle, Eudaimonia – true human flourishing – is a requisite of life. Eudaimonia is to follow one’s true calling, and act in a way that will provide true nourishment to the soul. I might not know my true calling from an early age, yet at each step I kept a wondrous spirit and an insatiable curiosity, coupled with the willingness to forgo comfort.
As Michel Foucault said, the only practical consequence of the idea that the self is not given to us, is that we have to create it ourselves as a work of art. Living a life in which I did not follow a linear path of progression taught me that change is essential and we always need to be curious, interested and not afraid to get out of our comfort zone. People tell you to follow a set path; however, I have learned that you do not need to follow just one path over the course of your life. You can turn around, change direction, even run off the path and into the unknown. Making ourselves uncomfortable by shifting our aim, perspective, direction and, ultimately, ourselves, is what really defines who we are. The ground may start shifting, and no matter how scary this may feel, we are biologically programmed to survive and adapt. What is important is that, when this happens, we need to follow the rhythm until we find our purpose and, ultimately, our true self. Somewhere along the way, we may feel like we lose ourselves; but getting lost is probably the only way we can ever be found.