Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why I Won't Tell You to "Be Yourself"

{In which I give advice on, well, advice}

Be yourself. I see this all the time, and I'm rather tired of it; I find it much too vague to be of use to anyone. If I were ranking pieces of advice, I would place it somewhere below "do three jumping-jacks every day" (which is concrete and specific) and above "eat mushrooms" (because mushrooms taste gross).

What does "be yourself" even mean? How can you tell when you're being yourself and when you're not? Am I more myself when I'm having a bad day and let everyone know it, rather than trying to hide it with a smile? Am I less myself when I strive to adopt a virtue or trait I've observed in someone else, rather than embracing my flaws?

Sure, the phrase may sound good, but it is so general and abstract on its own that I wish people would stop saying it without explaining what they mean or suggesting how to go about it. And if they mean to say something else entirely, such as "stop ripping off my stuff" or "I don't approve of plastic surgery" or "I'm positive you can  be successful by doing only the things you feel like doing" or whatever, well, I wish they'd say that instead.

I'm guessing that some people use the phrase as a shorthand for encouraging individuality, which is nice, but still not that helpful unless the concepts are more fleshed out. I don't claim to know all the answers, but if I were to offer an alternative to the "be yourself" cliche, it might look something like this:

1. Know what you want

I think this is the key to, like, everything. Without some sort of purpose, or goal, or even preference, what's the point of doing anything? So yeah, I'd say it's pretty important figure out what you want.

This comes easily to some people. They have an amazing amount of self-awareness and clear ideas of what they want to accomplish in life. For other people (me, for one), it takes some exploration and reflection, and my vision for life is definitely still under development. But at least I'm working on it, which is a big step in the right direction, I think.

So, what do you want? This can include anything from lifestyle, accomplishments, to personality traits. Maybe you want to be happy. Or maybe you'd rather be interesting. Maybe you want to be able to think of yourself as honest and respectable. Maybe you want to feel important, or content, or rich, or liked by as many people as possible. Or be the world record-holder for stuffing the most hot dogs in your mouth at once.

Whatever your wants happen to be, identifying them will make it a lot easier to make decisions that facilitate their transformation into reality.

Be honest with yourself about what you want. Don't mistake something else — what others want, or what you think you should want, or what you think others think you should want — for what you actually want. Sometimes those overlap and sometimes they don't; knowing the difference can save you avoidable heartache and wasted time.

2. Know your priorities

Knowing your dreams and goals is all well and good, but it's also important to be realistic about the price of achieving them. They take time and energy and resources, and some may even conflict with one another. It's pretty hard to do nothing and be lazy all day and earn a billion dollars, you know? Some dreams rely heavily on chance, some are entirely impossible, and some are incredibly costly. If you know yourself — what you're willing to sacrifice, what your strengths are, what matters most to you — it'd be easier to balance the various aspects of life and make the compromises that make the most sense for you.

It's up to you to decide what your priorities are, and whether the costs are worthwhile for you personally. Some people think practicing the ukulele for twelve hours a day is a small sacrifice in exchange for mastering the instrument; to others, it's insanity. Only you know which one it is for you.

Sometimes you can compensate for weaknesses in one area with strengths in another, so take stock of your resources, whether it is raw talent, lots of free time, a great network, bountiful wealth, or anything else. Define your own ranking of what matters, what makes you happy, and what trade-offs you're willing to make, and use that to determine the best course of action for you. After all, what's valuable to others may not be so to you, so be sure to use your own value system as a guide since you'll be the one living with the outcome.

I'm not saying you should disregard everyone else's opinions. It's ok to value others' good opinion of you. Just don't confuse their values for your own. And as with everything else, choose your compromises carefully, and be honest with yourself about why you make them.

3. Experiment to see what works for you

A method that's effective for another person may not be so for you, even if you have the same goals. You have your own unique strengths, genetics, worldview, way of processing information, experiences, etc., and that means that what works for someone else may produce different results when you try it out. It might take a bit of trial-and-error to find a good fit, so experiment! If something doesn't work despite your best efforts, move on, but don't write it off entirely — who knows, it might work better at another time in your life. If something gets you the results you want, that's awesome, and don't listen to anyone who says your method is wrong. (Although if an untried alternative is offered, you may consider giving it a shot to see if it works better. Or not, if consistency matters more to you than a potential increase in effectiveness. See? Priorities are so handy.) There's more than one path to success, whatever that means to you, and you have to find the one that works for you, given your current set of traits/beliefs/abilities.

4. Reevaluate your goals, priorities, and methods every once in a while

The biggest issue I have with the idea of "be yourself" (other than its vague, abstract quality) is that I don't believe each person has this one true self that's always there beneath the surface. Your idea of your best self and your current self are both constantly evolving — don't be afraid to change your mind about what kind of person you want to be, or what you find important, or what process is most effective for you.

You are always yourself. But how you feel about that depends on how well you think you measure up to the standards of your value system. If you don't like where you're at, change some things. You can shift your priorities, or work harder, or pursue a new dream. You will never fail to be yourself; the question is whether you're making the most of it.

So yeah, it'd probably turn out to be something like that. :P What do you think? Is it more helpful than being told to "be yourself"?

with love,


  1. Completely agree. Super awesomely good advice.

  2. yay glad you think so! :D i just had to write a blog post about it since i
    was getting sooo annoyed at seeing "be yourself" everywhere, and no one
    expanded upon it to my satisfaction haha

  3. this was MUCH better; i too hate it when people say be yourself. and yes, i think your advice is more helpful than being told to be yourself (which is ranked with mushrooms, of course it wouldn't be helpful)

  4. ooh nice to know i'm not the only one who feels that way! hahahaha i'm sure
    some people will think "be yourself" is even LESS helpful than "eat
    mushrooms" because they actually like mushrooms. :P i just happen not to,

  5. You wrote this!!!? That's so inspiring!
    Be myself? I just don't don't what "myself" is. And for me, I even don't know what do I want.Now I can only find little interesting things via learning from school. And what I will do in the future seems very very far from me. I hope I will have your courage to grasp any chance to try to explore the life.

  6. Hahaha thanks Willie! I'm impressed you read it! I have full confidence that you will discover what you want and go after it with everything you've got. :)