There’s a lot of writing about how obviously sensible or obviously stupid it is to tell someone, “Be yourself.” Almost all of this writing starts with something like, “Be yourself. What does that even mean?”
Be yourself. What does that even mean?
When I was an academic, that was me, but it was a version of myself that I chose and built. When I left that world and built an identity as a reluctant engineer, that was also a version of myself that I chose and built. Even basic things about me are the results of choices. I am volatile and creative in part because I encouraged the volatile and creative parts of myself. I am lazy because I have allowed myself to be lazy, and happy because I have repeatedly made the choice to work on my happiness.
It’s evident that each of us is in the process of making ourselves, all the time, every day. If you are who you’ve made yourself to be by choice and effort, then by definition, whatever you choose is right, and you are always being yourself. “Be yourself” is a meaningless tautology, already and always true. Right?
Well, not exactly.
Making yourself by choice and effort is an art. You are practicing the art of making yourself. You’ve been practicing it for most of your life.
Paul Graham says this about making art:
At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.
The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it.
As you make yourself, you do it with a personal style. This style emerges without your even trying; you can’t help but have your style.
In my case, some key elements are: I’m very flighty, interested in everything and prone to change topics really quickly. I’m always in a fight with myself to be better; I wake up every day and want to be more than I am. I’m passive for long stretches, needing hours of recharge time just to take walks, and sometimes having difficulty summoning the activation energy for the next good thing. I’m conscientious; I’ve payed a lot of attention to the quality of what I’m doing, and flat out quit several really nice parts of my life because they felt wrong. I’m usually pathologically honest and struggle not to be too blunt. I love to talk and can do so for hours and hours without stopping. When I set about making myself, I do it thoughtfully, I do it in bursts, I talk about it a lot. These things are my style.
That style is the real me. Your style is the real you. You’re a businessman? A nice person? A runner? An educated person? A tough person? That’s not you. The idiosyncratic way you went about making yourself into those things, that’s the real you.
“Be yourself” means “don’t fight against your natural style”.
I’ve fought against most of the parts of my natural style at one point or another. In each case I fought because I wanted to be a particular type of person, and that person required the opposite traits. Every time I’ve done this, it’s made me miserable and ineffective.
For instance, I always wanted to be an astronaut. Astronauts are uncommonly, uncannily disciplined people. I’m really undisciplined by nature. This is a weakness that needs shoring up, for sure, but there were points in my childhood and my early teenage years where I pushed myself to become the most disciplined person. I was sailing against a headwind, and if I’d persisted, I’d be sailing against that headwind for the rest of my life.
Contrast that with the times I’ve let myself be a writer. Writers are good at disassembling and reassembling concepts. They’re good at wordplay. They like to talk (even if it’s just in text form). They like to make up stories. I’m naturally inclined to all of these things. I write a few thousand lines of gchat with my friends every day, not because I push myself, but because I want to write. When I write, I’m sailing with a natural tailwind.
A friend of mine who is a quite successful doctor complains constantly about her job. When people applying to medical school ask her for advice, she wants to shake them and yell “Don’t do it!” (But she never does.) How did she get into this fix? In high school she already wanted to be a doctor. And she is so ambitious and determined that she overcame every obstacle along the way—including, unfortunately, not liking it.
Now she has a life chosen for her by a high-school kid.
Be yourself. Pay attention to the style that comes most naturally to you. Shore up real weaknesses, but accept that you can’t remake yourself into absolutely anything. Don’t spend your whole life struggling against your real natural style. Instead, find things you want to be that suit your style.
[An aside just for teenagers: This is why we’re always telling you to be yourself. You’re just starting to understand your own style, and you face more pressure than anyone else to fight against it. If you’re bookish and thoughtful, someone is telling you to be more impulsive. If you’re creative, someone is telling you to be more focused. If you’re shy, someone is telling you to fake it until you make it. No! Pay attention to your natural style and protect it. It will get easier. Last week, my friend went surfing dressed as Batman. Nobody told him he shouldn’t do this. He’s grown up, he can do what he wants!]
Being yourself in this sense is the difference between repression and self improvement. Repression violates your natural style, the parts you just can’t help. It diminishes you. Self improvement synchronizes with your natural style. It amplifies you.
Go make yourself. Go practice your art. Go be yourself.