What “Be Yourself” Really Means

Image credit : cobrasoft @ sxc.hu“Be yourself” is wonderfully versatile piece of advice. Whether you’re looking for ways to improve your blogging skills or your love life, someone will invariably suggest that you just need to be yourself and success will follow.  Got an empty page and nothing to say? Write about things you find interesting. Want to come up with a great product idea or a profitable niche? Examine your interests and skills; solve  a problem that you would like to be solved and sell the solution. Too socially inept to find a girlfriend/boyfriend? Stop worrying and just be yourself. Someone will surely find that attractive (and if they don’t like the real you, well, they obviously weren’t right for you anyway).

On the other hand, it’s blindingly obvious that this approach doesn’t quite mesh with another frequently repeated truism : “People don’t care about YOU”. You don’t need to be a jagged cynic to realise that this is true – for example, everyone knows that you can’t just blog about what you had for breakfast and expect to get thousands of visitors. Likewise, selling any random thing that you think is cool won’t work either – you need to do market research first and determine if there is any demand for your product.

So one has to wonder – what does “be yourself” really mean, and does it have any practical value?

“Be Like Me”

People who sincerely believe in the “be yourself” mantra are usually operating under the assumption that since it worked well for them, it will also work for you. This is a very common mistake that we all make from time to time. We tend to assume other people are mostly like ourselves, so things that are easy for us should also be easy for everyone else. For example, as a self-confessed geek, I’m constantly surprised at how “normal” people can make the dumbest mistakes when dealing with computers.

As it turns out, when someone says “be yourself”, what they actually mean is “be like me“.

The “be yourself” advice is only really useful when the advice-giver elaborates on what qualities in particular they want you to develop. Perhaps they think that being yourself means being more honest or more outspoken. Or maybe what they really mean is you should be ready to take risks and more confident about your choices. Either way, there needs to be something specific to go on. “Be yourself”  by itself is meaningless, a null operator.

Even if they don’t specify what exactly they mean by “being yourself”, you can sometimes figure it out on your own. The trick is to determine which aspects of their personality or environment are the ones critical to their success. If you manage that, you can then imitate those aspects. For example, you can check what skills they have and try to develop the same skills. You can find out what kind of people they hang out with and adjust your social circle accordingly. You can even see how they dress and adopt the same style.

Other Benefits of Being True To Yourself

While I think that people who advise you to “be yourself” are usually doing it for the wrong reasons, there can also be some advantages to embracing your own interests and personality :

  • For one, it can be beneficial to say (or write) what’s really on your mind, even your position is controversial. People will tend to notice the passion and sincerity of your arguments even if they disagree with you. In the long run, this can help you develop a reputation for being honest.
  • Another advantage is the confidence boost that you get when dealing with topics that you know and like. It’s much easier to talk confidently about things you personally find interesting. Similarly, if you manage to find a job in a field that you’re really passionate about, you will definitely feel more confident about yourself than if you had to slog through your day at a soulless cubicle farm. And confidence, as we know, is attractive.
  • Finally, it’s just more fun.

Don’t take the above as indication that I think being yourself is a great idea for everyone. Ultimately, being yourself is the second step. The first step is to be somewhat attractive (in the broad sense), either naturally or by imitating someone else. Then you can use the “be yourself” shtick to emphasize that attractiveness, to play to your strengths and reap the emergent benefits listed above.

Image credit : cobrasoft @ sxc.hu

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6 Responses to “What “Be Yourself” Really Means”

  1. Hackadelic says:

    My thoughts exactly! “Be yourself” is nearly as helpful as “use your unique talents”.

    Success and failure are created in the context of demand and supply. Be too unique and you may end up alone, with no audience, no demand. Bee too alike, and you may end up with too much competition to get anywhere close to the top of your “niche”.

    On the other hand, you can’t help but “being yourself”. Even when you try to become someone else, you are yourself, because that attempt is part of your personality at that given time.

    A much better, and much more helpful metaphor is “You can start a journey only from where you stand.” Assessing who we are is the first step towards becoming who we want to be.

    Thanks for a great reading. :-)

  2. Hackadelic says:

    After reading through a couple of other related posts, I’d say you seem quite fine with being yourself, even if (or exactly because) your posts are laced with delicious self-irony on that matter. ;-)

  3. White Shadow says:

    On the other hand, you can’t help but “being yourself”. Even when you try to become someone else, you are yourself, because that attempt is part of your personality at that given time.

    That’s an interesting point. Though I doubt human minds are always sufficiently consistent/non-buggy to successfully preserve their own over-arching individuality and goals; genuine, uncontrolled personality drift probably occurs anyway.

  4. Hackadelic says:

    If inconsistency is “human”, do attempts to be consistent make us “un-human”?

  5. White Shadow says:

    That depends on each individuals preferences. I’d prefer if my terminal values didn’t drift, but if someone’s terminal values included value drift it would be only rational for them to allow it to happen.

    Of course, the issue is largely moot at this time. Due to the messiness of our brains, we don’t really know what our true terminal values are :P All we’ve got are some fuzzy approximations and shaky moral philosophies. So there is actually have at least one good reason for changing our minds from time to time – we may discover a bit more about our true preferences and decide to move closer to them.

  6. [...] by What “Be Yourself” Really Means, a cool contemplation about an advice that is usually both, thoughtlessly given and [...]

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