Contrary to popular belief, the “real you” is someone who no more than five people have learned to tolerate, perhaps even like.
Among the extensive catalogue of popular tips for boosting our levels of happiness and success, few are as appealing as the suggestion to “just be ourselves”. Common variations of this advice include recommendations to “be authentic”, “unleash you true self”, and “stop worrying about what others think of you”. In fact, “if you think you are great, you are”, and naturally “if you think you can make it, you will”.
Attempts to refute these recommendations run counter to the current Zeitgeist, and position oneself as negative, cynical, or pessimistic - or at least a killjoy. Furthermore, the notion that we ought to actually care about, or even pay attention to, what others think of us, and adjust our behavior to match others’ expectations or adhere to an establish social etiquette, appears to violate a fundamental principle of our consumerist society: that we should all embrace disruptive non-conformity, challenge the status-quo, and unleash our unique self to harness the creative potential of our open-minded society. Presumably the only alternative is communism or Nazi Germany.
Just look at Elon Musk and Donald Trump who appear to tweet in a rather authentic and uninhibited way - look how successful they are! By the same token, Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch never cared too much about what others think of them. And Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Madonna, Jordan Peterson, and Eva Peron all achieved cult-like status - in the sense of being cultural icons - through their uncompromising ability to impose their unique brand and style on society, challenging the establishment to become emblematic disruptors, disrespecting existing social rules and cultural pressures. Oh, and if you don’t particularly like those examples then how about Mohammed Ali, Serena Williams, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miles Davis, Diego Maradona, or Nina Simone, or perhaps Nelson Mandela?
To be sure, there is no questioning that the above list of extraordinary achievers could very well illustrate the rebel spirit underpinning the “just be yourself” mantra. After all, they stand out not just for their accomplishments, but also for their great and distinct personalities, and a big part of that is their reputation for being sincere, defiant, and free, even if that got them in trouble. Let’s also agree that another non-trivial feature they all have in common is their ability to combine high doses of talent with a relentless work ethic, something that is far more likely to increase your success, than the capacity to just be yourself.
But let us take a step back. What do we even mean when we say “just be yourself”? Personally, I have been trying to be someone else for a while, but somehow I always wake up as me, and go to sleep as me. It may be that I’m extremely good at being myself, but I feel I am not really alone here. Is there anything a person can do that might more strongly be attributed to someone else rather than themselves? Even those who believe in determinism, and deny the existence of free will, will struggle to find a different agent for someone’s behaviors than oneself. And if you really want to go down the route of silly or pop psych examples, such as situations where a person was drunk, drugged, hypnotized, confused, or had a gun pointing at them - well, whatever they do, they are probably still themselves.
There is, however, the less philosophical and metaphysical interpretation of the “just be yourself” mantra, which alludes to relaxing one’s social inhibitions to behave in an uncensored, natural, and spontaneous way. The drunk analogy is perhaps more pertinent here, because what we have in mind is that you should act just like when your social barriers are down, and you can say whatever you think, express whatever you feel, or do whatever your impulses dictates. Imagine, for instance, that you are in a business or client meeting, and your boss asks you to provide feedback on their idea, in front of everyone else. Since you thought the idea was stupid - and generally find your boss quite incompetent - why should you pretend otherwise? Just say it, just be yourself, and express your views in the most brutally honest way you can, without even bothering to sugarcoat them.
While we may all have at times fantasized with this or similar scenarios, we are (hopefully) quite aware of their likely consequences. Perhaps you find this example a bit too extreme or unrealistic, but it is really not too far from the potential situation in which a young and inexperience job seeker turns up for their first job interview thinking that all they need to do is to be themselves, because for some magical reason what the interviewers and potential employers really want, is to hire them for who they really are. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you are, so long as you present yourself devoid of any inhibitions and refrain from managing impressions, or making an effort to put on a desirable professional persona. Imagine a few of the interview’s Q&A, if our imaginary young job seeker followed the “just be yourself” mantra:
Q: Do you enjoy working with others?
A: It depends. I would say that there’s probably 5-10% of the people that I enjoy working with. The rest requires some effort, and there’s quite a few people that I would actually hate to work with.
Q: Why do you wanna work for us?
A: I don’t really “want” to, but I need a job. If I could pick, you would be bottom of my current list of alternatives, and I didn’t really have much time to find out what you guys really do. However, I need the money, and if the other options don’t work out, I will accept any offer you make me and try to coast until I find something better.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
A: I generally don’t think that hard. I would like to earn more while working less, and perhaps even find a way to make money while I sleep, preferably in a legal and safe way, and ideally not having to do too much to get there. I would love to be a boss like and have a job that pays well, is prestigious, and gives me stability, even if I don’t actually do much in reality.
Q: What is your biggest weakness?
A: I hate stupid questions, like the one you just ask.
Although it is perfectly possible for this candidate to end up receiving a job offer, it is generally unlikely... even though they answered rather authentically, surpassing all other candidates in honesty and sincerity. Much like this interview, of which only the answers are fictional, life is not an invitation to act in an unfiltered and inhibited way, but an opportunity to negotiate between the behaviors we would like to display, and those others would like to see. The more social skills you have, and the more naturally likable, charismatic, and attractive you may be, the easier it will be for you to get away with a relatively natural and spontaneous repertoire of behaviors. This mostly comes down to status: if you are in the high status group, if you have power, you can certainly indulge in a greater proportion of authentic behaviors, which explains why the tendency to behave in entitled, rude, antisocial, prejudiced, racist, and abusive ways, is generally stronger in high-status individuals.
Make no mistake: there are wonderful reasons, including strong moral arguments, for resisting mindless conformity, and refusing to follow oppressive, irrational, or unfair rules and norms. And the prospect of fighting the system to replace it with something better, and in turn drive social progress, is one of the pivotal cornerstones of human civilization. That said, there is a big difference between doing just that, and assuming that others will celebrate or welcome whatever you do, so long as you like it yourself, it feels right to you, or it represents the most spontaneous and impulsive version of you. Unfortunately, we are rarely hired, promoted, liked or admired for just being ourselves, and in any domain of competence or expertise, you need to play by the rules before you can change them. This does include the ability to show self-control, empathy, consideration, which is why in any environment or culture, whether your status is low or high, you will generally harness a better reputation if you are capable of acknowledging others’ existence, adjust your behavior to avoid offending or hurting others, and are capable of self-censorship. Civilization is largely the result of improving our ability to tame our “authentic self”, and there is no need to live a fraudulent or meaningless life, or to disregard our own moral principles, in order to put on the most civilized and likable version of ourselves. Why “just be yourself”, when we have the option to try to be the “best possible version of ourselves”?
So, it may be helpful to understand the potential implications of acting as though others were genuinely interested in your real you, and allow for the possibility that the majority of people would rather see a more manicured, produced, and elaborate version of your personality. The real you is someone who perhaps four or five people in the world have learned to love, or at least tolerate - and that probably doesn’t include your boss.