Image by Schäferle from Pixabay

This is part of my Decluttering Toolbox.

In ninth grade, I enrolled in first-year Spanish. I dreamt of flawlessly conversing with native speakers in their home country. So I went to Barnes & Noble, found the foreign language section, and browsed through the options. There were study guides and grammar books and phrasebooks. In my excitement, I bought one of each. I imagined that I was well on my way to becoming fluent.

But I wasn’t.

After two years of Spanish, I signed up for Japanese. And nothing changed. I bought a grammar book and a kanji guide to help me become fluent. I imagined myself becoming proficient and even learning to like fish.

But I didn’t.

In both cases, I created an aspirational identity. I’d be a multilingual globetrotter who taught others about language acquisition. Buying books felt like movement toward that goal. (Serious language learners always buy books!) But material reality was another matter: I wasn’t ready to invest hundreds of personal study hours, especially while taking AP classes and preparing for the ACT. So my pile of books collected dust. Two decades later, I finally see that my purchases were just fuel for a fantasy. Nothing more.

I have a hard time learning from history (especially my own!), and so the same thing repeated itself in college. I had a roommate who spoke Italian and a friend from Quebec, so naturally, I bought a textbook on first-year Italian and a book on French grammar. I was nowhere near fluent in Spanish or Japanese, but this time would be different! I’d master French and Italian (at the same time!) because, in my mind, there were no obstacles. No limits on what I could do. (Cue the motivational poster with a soaring eagle and a caption that says, “You can do anything!”) But reality didn’t match my fantasy world. I had no time to learn two languages while taking a full course load. Nor did I have the discipline to stick with a self-directed goal for more than ten minutes.

I created an aspirational identity—a language polyglot!—and fed it with vocabulary books and study guides and CD courses.

Aspirational identities pop up in numerous other places, too. Whenever I watch a Jason Bourne movie, I want to learn Krav Maga and Google local dojos. Anytime I watch spy movies, I think about how cool it would be to be a covert agent, and I add spy gadgets to my Amazon wish list.

In “Building a StoryBrand,” Donald Miller discusses how Gerber uses aspirational identity to sell expensive knives. In a Gerber video ad, men do outdoorsy things with a voiceover, “Hello trouble. It’s been a while since we last met. But I know you’re still out there. And I have a feeling you’re looking for me.” This ad does a fantastic job selling knives to men who frankly don’t need them.

So be mindful of your aspirations and your purchases. Do you really need a $150 camping knife that cuts fish and carves wood? Do you really need a stack of Spanish textbooks? Will these move you closer to a goal? Or are you just fueling one of your many aspirational identities?