Ep 29: Finding Your Identity

Episode Summary

Paul Angone, author of 101 Questions You Need to Ask In Your Twenties, discusses the process of finding your identity and your unique “secret sauce” to bring to the world. The key is to push teens to take on increasingly more responsibility in their lives while also taking the right kinds of risks. 

Who the episode is for: Dads Moms Parents

Who it's about: Preteens Teens

Topics covered: Aspirations Identity Crisis motivation Self-Identity social media Strength

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Similarities between Adolescence and Your 20s

While at times we feel freed from the teenage identity issues that held us back in our youth, there are moments in our adult life when we feel just as small and humiliated as we did at 16. It’s undeniable that recovering from hardship can gradually make you more resilient and able to face challenges. If dealt with healthily, lessons learned from hardship can inspire creative and professional pursuits later in life. However, you must first develop the maturity and introspective skills to be able to look back and laugh, knowing that you’re wiser because of the mistakes you’ve made.

A variety of pressures can contribute to teenage identity issues. While it’s not necessary for a teen to decide what they want to do with their lives at 14, it’s at this age teens begin thinking about how their grades, extracurricular activities, and hobbies can determine what they do with their future. Comparing your teen’s successes to those of peers can further complicate this issue.

Is it bad that your teen is only focusing on soccer while their friend plays two sports while also putting in volunteer hours? It can be damaging to a teen’s self esteem to give in to comparing themself to their peers. While healthy competition between teens can be used as a motivational tool, comparing often gives way to feelings of inferiority. Instead of motivating a teen to work harder, it might cause them to have a “why should I even try?” attitude.

As a parent, you should avoid telling your teen what to do with their life because they might directly rebel against you or feel like their choices belong to you, not to them. It’s a tricky line you walk as a parent; you want to help them through any teenage identity issues by showing them their unrealized strengths, yet still give them freedom. Teenagers crave control and it would disservice your relationship if you were to push them too hard—but what if their lack of motivation is getting in the way of their success?

For Paul Angone, the answer to these teenage identity issues came in the form of a question––101 to be exact. Often labeled as a one of the “leading voices to millenials,”  Angone is the author of 101 Questions You Need to Ask in Your Twenties (And Let’s Be Honest, Your Thirties too). He has also studied the generational differences between Millenials and Baby Boomers, and started the popular blog All Groan Up –– a place for those asking “what now?”

In this episode, we discuss how Paul uses 101 questions to help teens discover who they are, to use success and failure to shape (but not define) your future, and to recognize the false facades social media often presents as reality. Though this book focuses on your 20s, in this interview we dive into how reading this book during adolescence can actually be a “cheat sheet” to overcoming teenage identity issues and determining what you want to do with your future. 

Finding your Secret Sauce and Learning from Failures

Paul talks at length about teenage identity issues and the process of finding your “secret sauce.” This sauce is a combination of your god-given strengths as well as strengths you’ve acquired by persevering through hard times. For example, your teen may be naturally gifted at math but what really makes them unique is how failing a history test forced them to study harder than ever before. Getting a good grade in history meant more to your teen than excelling in math because their hard work actually paid off. Your teen’s secret sauce is not only what they’re naturally gifted at but the work they are willing to put in to gain new strengths.

The key to encouraging teens to take on more responsibilities is teaching them to take the right kind of risks. You need to help them get out of their comfort zones and try something they are afraid of without causing teenage identity issues. It’s important to show your teen everything they can gain from taking a risk––new friends, new exciting experiences, a more well-rounded outlook on life. 

Paul recognizes that while getting your teen to try new things may be challenging, the reward oftentimes outweighs the risk. Things that seem unfamiliar and intimidating can end up being formative experiences for teens. Say your kid is unsure of whether they want to go to tennis camp or not. Perhaps this is the first time they’ll be away from you for a week. There’s a chance that they won’t like the other kids or that they’ll realize they’re the worst tennis player there. But maybe, being the “worst” will force them to work harder than everyone else and to learn from older kids who were once in their place.

Like taking risks, assigning new responsibilities to teens doesn’t come without its struggles. There may be times your teen will fail because they are unfamiliar with handling big responsibilities of their own. It’s tempting as a parent to automatically drop everything and take some of the stress off their teen’s hands. In order to help kids overcome teenage identity issues, Paul urges you to not succumb to this temptation right away. He states that you need to determine how big this fall is going to be and how much it’ll be worth it to come out on the other side a more capable person.

Most of the time, experiencing new things or taking on a new responsibility is not as scary as it seems. Part of overcoming teenage identity issues is dependent on how much they learn from new experiences or even failures. Sometimes the risks they take may even lead to their greatest achievements. 

Social Media Pressures on Teen Identity

Paul also touches on the role that social media plays in contributing to teenage identity issues. He discusses the idea of Obsessive Comparison Disorder, which is perceived success that other people are displaying online. Paul has figured out a whole new dimension to the fears that arise from the presence of social media in a teen’s life, and in this episode he dives in to how parents can help reduce the impact it has on their kid. 

Of course no one wants to reveal their greatest insecurities online. But teens aren’t wired to see this when they’re looking at a picture on Instagram of someone winning 1st place, or at prom with their beautiful girlfriend, or getting accepted to their first pick of college. They only see what they don’t have. In this episode, Paul explains how parents can help teens understand the false facades of social media along with other tactics to overcoming teenage identity issues, including…

  • Helping your teens find their soul values– core beliefs that drive their future decisions
  • Determining what your teens are and aren’t willing to sacrifice for success
  • Teaching your kids to think before they post 

This was a very uplifting and therapeutic episode that really gets you to think about personal growth you’ve made since your teen years. I hope that this 43 minute discussion with Paul Angone will help you share with your kids how hard times and failures in life can help them overcome teenage identity issues.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Encourage teens who are afraid to fail:

“When you’re afraid, sometimes you’ve gotta do it anyways. And sometimes that might be a sign that you need to do it. Like making a presentation at work, I have to do a lot of speaking. That fear never goes away. I think there’s this lie that some people just never get afraid jumping on stage. Well, actually, I think a lot of them still are afraid of it. I still am after all these years. It’s intense to get up in front of people. But I step into the fear. And I’ve started to realize that fear actually gives me more adrenaline and makes me come more alive and I’m actually thinking clearer because it’s like my life depends on it. So sometimes that fear can actually be a catalyst for doing something great.”

-Paul Angone

2.  When your teen is feeling uninspired:

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3.  Encourage purposeful risks, not foolish ones:

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4.  Put social media into perspective:

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5.  Inspire your teen to go for it:

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2. When your teen is feeling uninspired:

“This time of your life is about finding your signature sauce. And it’s a process and a journey. It takes a lot of failed experiments where the whole thing goes up in flames. Or where it burns on the bottom of the pan and and then it’s just that sick black stuff and you’ve gotta throw the pan out and start over.”

-Paul Angone

3. Encourage purposeful risks, not foolish ones:

“If you’re ever going to figure out some of these big questions in life, at some point you’re going to have to get lost. Because to explore you have to get lost. That’s kind of the whole point of exploring. You’re getting lost but you’re getting lost on purpose, with purpose.”

-Paul Angone

4. Put social media into perspective:

“I’ve been thinking about how, looking at the moon it looks to bright to all of us. It looks like the same picture to all of us. But there’s the dark side of it. We don’t ever see that dark side, because that’s not what’s being reflected back to us. And it’s kind of the same with social media. Not that you should be looking for the bad things in people. But just to notice that everybody’s got their problems behind the perfect exterior.”

-Paul Angone

5. Inspire your teen to go for it:

“Is it worth not trying for this? Is it worth not going for it? Is it worth not knowing? Like, if it doesn’t work out, that’s fine, it wasn’t going to work out if you didn’t try. So you might as well put your hat in the ring and you never know what’s going to happen.”

-Paul Angone

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I was hoping you could just tell me a little bit about like your story and what led you to write this book in particular. I know there’s another book, also. This one is kind of the followup to that one, and I was wondering what the stories behind those and how they came to be.

Paul: Yeah. I have been writing and focusing on the twenties and this defining decade of your life, Meg Jay called it the defining decade of your life.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Paul: And I’ve been focusing on that for the last 13 years. And mainly because, as a 21 year old graduating from college with all these big hopes and big dreams of making a difference or making a lot of money, or at least doing a job that sounded really cool that I could brag about on this new social network called Facebook, which it was fairly new when I was graduating from college, to date myself now. I’m getting old you, you know.

Paul: But anyway, I quickly realized that all my hopes and dreams, big plans of doing all these huge things weren’t coming true as I was working in a cubicle feeling like, “Man, is this what life’s about?” In my new book, I talk about this story. I lead in with the story of a breakup, of going through this epic breakup, where I got dumped. And I won’t go through all the details, it’s pretty long and epic. I’m in the pouring rain, I’ve been driving 20 hours, I get dumped, I feel like I’m in a Gilmore Girls episode or something.

Andy: It’s not good, yeah.

Paul: It’s not good. But that feeling after you break up with somebody, right? You don’t even know what to do with yourself. So much of your identity and your future was wrapped up in this relationship.

Andy: Tied up in this other person, yeah.

Paul: Yeah, and after college I felt that same kind of feeling. And I think transition is like that, change is like that. You’re breaking up with a version of yourself. You’re breaking up with a season, you’re breaking up with a place, and there’s a lot of breaking when you break up. And so, I do think it’s a very intense time of life, from teens into your twenties, as you’re becoming an adult, there’s a lot of big questions. So that’s why I’ve been focused on, first book, 101 Secrets For Your Twenties, now 101 Questions You Need to Ask in Your Twenties, because I think it’s such an important decade of your life.

Andy: Yeah, I think it has a cool point because personally, a lot of my research is based in social psychology, and I think that identity is such an elusive issue, but definitely during college, your identity as a college student is really, really salient and important to you. And I just was at dinner last night, I mean, as soon as people find out that I’m the parent-teen researcher guy, it’s like, “Oh my God, let me tell you about my 16 year old.” So I was at dinner last night and this guy next to me was just like, had this 20 year old kid and yada, yada, yada. But it’s this exact thing that you’re talking about, I think. He’s right there, 20 years old in this period of do I even go to college? Trying to figure out that identity.

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: And I love your concept of the signature sauce.

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: And I think that’s so cool because I think that this is what the twenties is all about, is finding your signature sauce and how you can contribute to the world in a positive way. And I wonder if you could just tell me, what is the signature sauce? How did you develop that concept and how do you find it?

Paul: Yeah, thank you. I was trying to figure out a way to break down these overwhelming questions of what are you going to do with your life? Or even deeper than that, like you were saying, what is your identity? What is your calling? What is your purpose? What is your passion? What’s your vocation? All of these overwhelming questions. And I was a communication studies major in college, and I basically picked that so I could pick the broadest major possible without really having to make a choice. I had to make a choice, but without really making a choice, right? So I never knew that. And so, man, I would work 80 hours a week, no problem. I would push it, I would sacrifice, I would do whatever it’d take if I could find that thing. And it was always that elusive search. So I started developing this idea of finding your signature sauce because I loved it as a metaphor of first of all, visualizing that master chef in the kitchen.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Paul: And I love watching these chef documentaries, right? Like Chef’s Table on Netflix, that’s a great, it’s about these artists, these creators, these people and their stories and how it relates to their journey in the kitchen. And so, that started inspiring me too, so I started picturing us, each one of us, as these chefs in the kitchen and bringing these flavors together, bringing these different ingredients together because I felt like finding your identity, your calling, your purpose, it wasn’t just one ingredient, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: And I felt like a lot of books and a lot of formulas, it was all about, well, take this ingredient.

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: Like just do garlic, you know? And if you just do garlic, it’s like, “No, if you’re going to have a good sauce, we all know you have to have these different flavors, ingredients.”

Andy: A little of this and they’ve got to mix together just right.

Paul: Right.

Andy: It’s like you start out with a lot of raw ingredients and it’s not like, “Hey, you need to get rid of all of these.” It’s like, “Hey, they just need the right sauce that’s going to time all together.” And sometimes an entire dish can just be made by having just the right sauce on it, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: And the twenties are like, how do you find just the right sauce to spice up your life?

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: And so, I wonder, what does it look like when you find that?

Paul: First of all, I think it’s a process and a journey. Just like that chef in the kitchen, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of failed experiments where the whole thing goes up in flames or it burns on the bottom of the pan, and then it’s just that sick black stuff and you’ve got to throw the pan out and start over. I mean, I love that part of it too, like there’s that process of it. But then in reality, so many ingredients that I think go into each one of our signature sauce are things like, one, your story.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Paul: So I like starting with your story, your backstory. And I’m a writer, so I’m all about backstory. So what is your backstory, and what I call the pivotal plot points of your story?

Andy: Oh, that’s cool. Yeah, I like that.

Paul: So meaning your biggest triumphs and your tragedies that you’ve gone through.

Andy: Your personal narrative.

Paul: Yeah, and why was that a triumph for you? What were you actually doing? Were you leading? Were you researching? What were you doing? And then, also your tragedies, so some of the hard things you’ve gone through. Because sometimes, I think it’s those hard things that become your passion, right?

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: A lot of people ask me, “Well, how do I find my passion?” I’m like, well, typically you find your passion by going through something extremely hard, difficult, where you feel like you’re going to die, you feel like you’re failing and you feel like the world’s going to end, but somehow you make it through, right?

Andy: Right.

Paul: And somehow you get through that and now you want to help other people. Now you want to help solve that problem for somebody else. So actually, a lot of the times it’s our pain and our frustration that can then lead into our purpose. So trying to figure that out within the context of your story, so that you’re then working on the next chapters, your future story because that’s what we’re focused on. But if you don’t know where you came from and why these certain things are important to you, well, that’s just one ingredient of what I say are our 10 ingredients that go into it.

Andy: I like that. You would then just try to look back over the course of your whole life and pick out what are the three to five salient, big points, ups and downs, and then those are like the raw materials that you’re going to start with?

Paul: Yeah. And that’s what I do in this 101 Questions You Need to Ask book. I’m breaking it down and I’m asking people put the three to five biggest triumphs of your life, put the three to five biggest tragedies of your life. And then you start pulling out some themes and you start pulling out something, and then we’ll ask another question of, okay, what are your biggest values? What are the most important soul values to you?

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: And that’s another ingredient, your soul values, these core beliefs that are driving your decisions, driving your thinking. When the rubber hits the road and you hit the crossroads, there’s certain values that are going to be guiding you. Do you know what those values are? And I think we think we know what our values are, but we haven’t really gone through the process of actually putting them on paper and writing them down.

Paul: And a mentor of mine did this with me, a guy named Ray Rood, this wise mentor, and he forced me to do this. And I thought it was so silly and like, “Oh, I know my values,” but actually doing it was such an incredibly difficult… Because he actually has me rank them from one to five. And I ask people to do this in my book too, is rank what’s your number one value, and your number two. And that’s a part of your story. So your story is leading into what your soul values are, so again, it’s very fluid, but try to break these ingredients down.

Andy: I love that. And I think I’d love to talk about that a little more because values is one of the cornerstones that I think is fundamental with teenagers. But it’s like when your kids are younger, I think your job as a parent is more to instill values in them. But as they get into their twenties, this age group that you’re talking about, it’s like they need to have internalized them by then. And like you’re saying, that’s the point where they then need to go out on their own and test and see are those values that my parents were giving me, are those really mine?

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: And they need to decide for themselves. And until they make that decision completely for themselves, that I want to take this on, it’s never really going to be their core identity, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: So how do you, as a parent say, “Hey, look. This is what I’ve been trying to teach you. But there’s a certain point where I have to say you’ve got to…”

Paul: Yeah. I mean, that’s the whole thing. And I’m a dad of younger kids. I’ve got the seven, five and two year old, but I often think about that. Like you even put it in the context of the playground, and you’re watching your kid go across the monkey bars or something and they’re about to fall, they’re dangling with one arm, it’s always that question of what’s better for them? Do I go over and catch them? Or you’re trying to judge how bad is this fall going to be? Is this fall going to actually hurt them? Or can they drop and now they’ve learned something about how far they can go on the monkey bars? There’s never one answer because it’s all dependent on the situation.

Paul: But I feel like, as a parent of a teen and 20-something, you’re doing that similar thing of how big is this fall going to be? Is this a fall that maybe I need to catch them a little bit on? Maybe I need to just guide the fall a little bit or maybe, do I need to let them drop because it’s not going to be that bad, but it’s going to be enough failure that’s going to now home that signature sauce?

Andy: Sure.

Paul: It’s going to be like, well, that failure is a part of it now. Because if your teen and 20-something is going to figure out some of these big questions, at some point they’re going to have to get lost, so to speak.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Paul: Because to explore, you have to get lost. That’s kind of the whole point of exploring, is you’re getting lost, but you’re getting lost on purpose with purpose. And so, that’s the hard part is, how do you help your teen and 20-something get lost on purpose, but do it with purpose and intentionality? So it’s this intentional lost-ness.

Andy: Yeah, sure.

Paul: It’s not just wandering and feeling like you’re out all alone and isolated, but it’s this intentional lost-ness. And so, it’s nuanced. It’s not as formulaic, I think, as sometimes we make it.

Andy: As a researcher, I’m big on getting data and what is it going to take to test this hypothesis and then move on to the next question? And I think it’s kind of the same thing in your life. That’s what I was trying to tell this guy last night. I was like, “At the end of the day, the more things your son fails at during the next two years, the closer he’s going to get to finding whatever it is that he loves.” So it sounds like he loves quitting things, could you just make him a deal that, “Hey, I’ll pay you rent for free, as long as you can prove to me every month that you have quit 10 things. Otherwise, it’s $500 a month, which seems like fair rent.” Right?

Paul: Yeah.

Andy: But just something like that that is kind of fun and quirky, but quitting is fine as long as by trying it, you were able to answer a question about what’s not right for you, or something that gets you closer to finding that signature sauce, I think.

Paul: Yeah. That’s great.

Andy: Are there any of these questions that you have in this book, 101 Questions For Your Twenties, that would specifically jump out at you as being even important earlier, during the teenage years?

Paul: Well, I mean, I think there’s a lot of them that are applicable to your teenage years. And if a teenager picked up this book, and I do have a lot of teenagers that read this book, and it’s like they’re getting the answers to the test for four years from now, right?

Andy: Years early, man, yeah.

Paul: And it’s awesome. Who doesn’t want the answers to the test before you have to start taking the test?

Andy: Totally.

Paul: So I’m always pumped by teenagers, 17, 18 year old, and I’m always so proud of them because I’m like, “Man, if I was asking these questions when I was 17 or 18, I would have saved myself so much unneeded anxiety and frustration and feelings of failure and all those things.”

Paul: But I think one of them that’s big for all of us, whether you’re teens, twenties or whatever, is, I ask this question in the book of, am I seeing the other side of everybody’s Instagram photos? So it’s a social media based question and I know our preference for what social media network we might use will be different. You might be on Snapchat, you might be on Instagram, you might be on Twitter or whatever it is, Pinterest. But basically it’s this idea, and I talk about this more in my first book, but this idea of what I call obsessive comparison disorder. And I feel like this is a huge one for all of us on social media, this idea that we’re constantly comparing ourselves every second of the day through social media.

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: And we’re comparing these images of perceived success that other people are putting out there, or their epic lives, they’re these amazing lives. They’re traveling, they’re experiencing all these things. So making sure, first of all, that you’re realizing all these photos are too good to be true. They’re not reality, there’s another side to this. And I call it the dark side of the moon. It’s Pink Floyd-esque, going way back to the ’70s, but my wife and I were actually looking at that, looking at the moon, and the moon looks so bright to all of us, right? It looks like the same picture to all of us, but there’s the dark side of it and don’t ever see that dark side because that’s not what’s being reflected back to us.

Paul: So it’s that same idea when you’re looking at social media. Not that you’re looking for all the bad things in people, but that you’re noticing, first of all, that everybody’s got their problems, that the grass is always greener on the other side until you get there and realize it’s because of all the manure that’s there, and that’s what’s helping the grass grow, but it’s some smelly stuff sometimes. I think that’s important for all of us so that we don’t get overwhelmed in this obsessive comparison disorder, this constant comparison game, which then makes us feel terrible, which makes us feel like we’re not succeeding or we’re lacking.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Paul: And it’s also blocking authentic conversations because we’re all trying to play this game of, “Oh, my life is too good to be true,” instead of having authentic conversations in that respect. So I think that’s a big one. And it’s for teens, for twenties, anybody that’s forming their identity, that social media is not always obviously an accurate representation.

Andy: Yeah, I think it’s a good point because also, during the teenage years, those social comparison parts of the brain are so highly active as anyone who has ever been a teenager probably is aware. So one of the things during my teenage years, especially when I was at high school, that really had a profound impact on my life was finding the tapes from all those old self development guys back in the ’80s and just listening to them all over and over and over again. And I think the big takeaway message from all of those guys is just that what makes you successful in your life is not big grand things, it’s just small everyday habits. And you have a section about this in your book, if I do this now, how am I going to feel about this later? The insignificant decisions, what do I eat for lunch? How do I spend those extra 15 minutes? Exponentially add up over time and I mean, it’s just two chapters in your book, but I thought it was just so insightful. And I wonder if you could talk a little more about those small insignificant decisions.

Paul: Yeah, you realize pretty quickly that success, like you were saying, it’s like taking bucket of water after bucket of water and you’re trying to fill up this old well. And it’s the well is deep and there’s a lot in there, and there’s no water in there. And so, you’re going to the river and you’re bringing back bucket of water after bucket of water, after bucket of water, and it’s going to take a lot of buckets of water before the water starts to overflow, right? It could take 5,000 buckets, 10, 15,000, who knows? But you’re enjoying the process though, you’re enjoying that. “Wow, I’m getting stronger.”

Andy: Yeah.

Paul: “I’m carrying this bucket of water after a bucket of water and my arms are getting stronger, my legs are getting stronger, wow. I’m noticing the beautiful landscape around me, wow. I’m getting all this insight from nature,” and you’re being mindful of the process. And so anyway, it’s going to take maybe, let’s say 15,000 buckets before anybody sees the water start spilling over because nobody’s going to care. And they’re all going to think you’re crazy. And they’re all going to say, “Well, this is too hard. Why are you doing this?” But you start to realize that concept, that there’s 99% mundane moments in your life, that you have to create magic in those mundane moments. And it’s by doing the work.

Andy: Thank you so much for making the time to come here and talk to us today about your book. I really hope that everybody gets three copies like I have, one for your teenager, one for your spouse and one for yourself. Also, you can check out Paul’s other books as well.

About Paul Angone

An author, speaker, and humorist, Paul Angone is the creator of AllGroanUp.com, which has received millions of visitors from over 190 countries. He started All Groan Up in 2011 out of his Masters program in Organizational Leadership, where he focused his studies on Emerging Adulthood and generational differences between Millennials and Boomers.

He is the author of three books:

  1. 101 Questions You Need to Ask in Your Twenties (And Let’s Be Honest, Your Thirties too)
  2. 101 Secrets For Your Twenties
  3. All Groan Up: Searching for Self, Faith, and a Freaking Job!

Paul Angone grew up in Colorado and studied Communications at Westmont College and Organizational Leadership at Azusa Pacific University. He lives in Denver with his wife and three children.

Find Paul Angone on InstagramFacebook, and  Twitter.