A couple of weeks ago I was attending a talk about how to tap into your full human potential. The guy started by saying that it’s so important to be yourself. If you think about people that have made history, they seem to have been unapologetically themselves, and you want to be like that. Only if you do the same will you be able to reach your wildest dreams and unleash that power within you.
I remember I was quite annoyed by that talk. First because nowadays it has become such a cliché for people to tell you to be yourself. Second, these people always assume that you have to have a wild dream that's lurking inside you without being taken care of. No, some people are perfectly happy living a normal life and you've just told them that they're doing something wrong.
But the most intriguing part was that this speaker later went on to give a list full of things you can do differently to uncover that potential of yours. The scenario is typical for most motivational speeches and if you google “be yourself” you’ll find a similar pattern. Ditch bad friends, find a new hobby, start exercising, get out of your comfort zone, get in touch with your inner child - these are only some of them.
It seems kind of a contradiction – if being yourself is so desirable, shouldn’t this mean that you need to just keep on doing more or less of what you are already doing? Because you are you at this very moment, right?
Now, in order to solve this inconceivable mystery, I have to take a little detour to define the “you”. People smarter than I have been debating about what the self is since forever1. I won’t even attempt to summarize the history of the self here, but I think what we can all agree on is that we are a mass of feelings, thoughts, desires, and likings. By putting all these together we can usually make decisions about what careers to follow or what to have for lunch. In fact, this is one of the most obvious ways in which we reject possible outcomes for ourselves – "I wouldn’t like to be in that position".
The problem is that our likes might not be truly ours in fact, that we’ve just been conditioned to think in a certain way. Kind of like when a pair of crazy trendy shoes appear and at first you find them horrible but then everybody starts wearing them so you begin to think that maybe they’re not that bad.
A pair of shoes might not be such a huge deal, but we might invest in things that don’t really bring us any joy just because everybody else is doing it and we sacrifice our well-being in this pursuit. And this brings me back to the original idea. Maybe sometimes we need to be someone else than we think we are, just to see how that person is doing.
Does it feel any better wearing that pair of shoes? Is the admiration of your colleagues really worth it or you’d have been better off in that pair of pink slippers? Try to wear the slippers tomorrow for a change to see how that feels.
I think the reason these people are guiding us to do a bunch of things differently is because only by experimenting with different personas can we truly cross out what we like and what we dislike. Trying to be someone else can actually put us back on the track on discovering who we really are.
What might happen is also that our likes are not aligned with our desires. For instance, you might be a proud introvert and act accordingly, so you are very happy in your own skin. Then you find out that if you live in the US you might make $500k less throughout your career than a person who is in the middle of the spectrum of introversion/extroversion2. You might decide that money is really important for you and try to ditch your introversion sometimes, so you’ll make an active effort to engage more with people in situations when you might have otherwise behaved differently.
I think we’d be better of if, instead of being our current selves, we’d try to be who we want to be. Because being yourself usually doesn’t imply so much thinking. The second option means that we made a conscious choice about the kind of person we’d like to become. This purpose can even change over time and it’s totally alright.
I’d like to end my two cents with a quote by Michelle Obama, from her book Becoming that rang true to myself.
Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.
Maybe sometimes it’s good to spice things up and become someone else than you thought you’d be. Or actually, stay the same if that’s what you really want. Therein lies the catch.
1. If you are yearning for some deep thoughts, check out this savvy philosopher’s blog post about what makes you you (hint: it’s full of stick figure cartoons)
2. This is the study, but if you want something that's easier to digest you can listen to this podcast.