Why “Just Be Yourself” Can Be Terrible Advice, Here’s What To Do Instead


The social maxim “just be yourself” sounds motivating enough. Yet it’s really bad advice if “yourself” is awkward, uninteresting, and unskilled socially, if “yourself” is rude, abrasive, or condescending, if “yourself” is prejudiced, entitled, elitist. If any of these are true, don’t be yourself. Be this instead.


He’s The Same In Every Situation

One of my good friends, Tony, is a university professor, researcher, writer, podcaster, and speaker. I’ve always admired him because, among other things, he “shows up” the same way in his articles, on stage, and in his daily life with friends and family.

No matter the context, his principles—even his “voice,” which is articulate, interesting, witty, and wise—remain the same.

This unique brand of authenticity (i.e. knowing who he is and being true to that) and integrity (i.e. acting in a way that’s consistent with his own values) makes him memorable. His audiences, students, colleagues, clients, and friends always know what they’re going to get and trust it.

Even though both authenticity and integrity have become buzzwords, it’s important to not lose sight of their value. 

When you become the kind of person who always does what you say you’ll do, whose principles and values are made clear, who acts in alignment with those values without deviation—and who does all that in all contexts—you’ll stand out as the kind of professional others respect and admire.

Yes, you’ll become the kind of person people want to hire or collaborate with.

Even more, you’ll hold yourself in high regard. And learning to recognize, and be proud of, your own virtues is one of the most undervalued features of a successful career and life.

That pride doesn’t come from merely “being yourself,” though. Rather, it comes from “being your best self.”

“Being Yourself” Is Overrated

In a previous article, I talked about how, in my 20s, I was exposed to social dynamics, applied to the “pick-up community”.

Though there are definitely creepy, sexist elements to the pickup community, their use of social psychology research to examine human interaction rituals appealed to my inner nerd. Plus, the promise of his work—be better with people!—appealed to my inner recluse.

In their literature they often called into question this commonly offered social maxim: “Just be yourself.”

The argument: If “yourself” is awkward, uninteresting, and unskilled socially, if “yourself” is rude, abrasive, or condescending, if “yourself” is prejudiced, entitled, elitist, then definitely don’t be yourself.

Rather, spend time on your “inner game,” building the qualities and characteristics required to become your best self.

From there, your best self can only emerge when you’ve learned to practice:

  • active listening,
  • leading with compassion and understanding,
  • delivering feedback with care and perspective,
  • over delivering without expecting anything more in return,
  • seeing all experiences as opportunities to grow, and
  • showing up with honesty, humility, and integrity.

In the end, reputation — which I’ve written a number of articles about here—is a human factor. Which means it’s developed by getting better at being with humans.

No one is born with these skills already mastered. Each of us has to believe that these skills are important to develop, trust that practicing them will be worth the effort, and then get to the practicing.

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