What does "Be Yourself" really mean?

You've heard it before.

  • "Just be yourself."
  • "Embrace who you are."
  • "Fitting in is overrated."

In case you haven't heard the third one before, it's in the title.

These cliches all promote the idea of individuality and being proud of who you are.

Wesley van Peer, a stellar and fast-growing writer, does a great job of painting a picture of going pro-self in his fantastic article.

As he so eloquently put it:

I realized that fitting in is the grand hoax of our time.
A joke that isn’t even funny.
Like ordering a steak and getting served a plate of steamed broccoli instead.
I don’t want to be steamed broccoli, mate. I’d rather be the fiery, sizzling steak that you can’t ignore, even if you tried.

We all know how I feel about steak.

But while it's a good thing to embrace your unique quirks and the things that make you, you, we need to make sure we're all on the same page about one extremely important reminder.

The call to "be yourself" is not the call to "be anything."

If you think "being yourself" is an excuse to "be absolutely anything," including being a nuisance, then you might wanna think again.

Here's what "be yourself" really means, including the fine print:

  • Acknowledge the quirks that make you a unique person. Quirks that do not harm or inconvenience others or yourself.
  • Be proud of them. Not to the point of bragging or putting others who are dissimilar to you down.
  • Don't fear straying away from groupthink or conformity. But stray in a direction that's beneficial to yourself and others.

Entrepreneurs and misfits of society like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have accomplished great things to move humanity forward.

But not every misfit is a good misfit.

The ridiculous and unruly square in the tranquil, round hole

Society teaches certain values for obvious reasons, and not every existing box exists for people to rambunctiously and selfishly break out of.

Values like:

  • Keep to yourself on public transport and don't cause a disturbance.
  • Say "please" and "thank you."
  • Hand people things directly instead of throwing things at them.

And if you decide you want to stray from the norm in a way that's nonsensical and unruly and your defense is that you're "just being yourself," you're not embracing the mantra of "be yourself" correctly.

Adhering to those values I listed above doesn't make you a contemptible sheep.

I know what that looks like.

Being polite and conducting yourself appropriately is called being a decent human being.

And "being yourself" doesn't make you immune to these values.

In pursuit of individuality, you need to make sure you're not becoming indecent in the process.

Here are some examples to help illustrate what I'm saying:

  • You can like the color blue when all of your friends like the color green.
  • You can love what you do for work when all your coworkers hate it and are only there for a paycheck.
  • You can spend your free time writing when others are out shopping or playing video games.
  • You can be the only person not drinking when everyone else at the party is.

You have your own unique traits, values, and preferences.

Yet, notice how none of these choices you make sacrifice being a decent human being at the same time.

Be who you are without being a dick.

Self ≠ Stagnation

One last thing.

Being yourself isn't an excuse to never change, either.

If being yourself means being a bully who beats people up, you should probably work on that.

Don't marry your current self without doing your homework.

And even when you've done your homework and you're a great guy, put the ring on, but don't stop the work.

People change and ideally improve over time, so who you are today might not even be the best version of yourself.

If you stubbornly remain put in your current values and ideas, you might be sacrificing a greater future for yourself and others.

Pursuing the idea of "being yourself" in this manner is detrimental and stunts your growth.

I'm not necessarily saying that you have to change, but you must be open to the idea of doing so.

  • Maybe you have a bad habit of showing up late to things.
  • Maybe you're naturally more laid-back, to the point of being lazy.
  • Maybe you're forgetful when it comes to paying your friends back.

You can't just say "Oh, but I'm being myself" and expect all your problems to go away.

You can't just say "Oh, but this is who I am" and believe that that's a sufficient excuse for your inappropriate behavior.

With that logic, I could punch you in the face and just tell you that that's who I am, and you should be genuinely and perfectly okay with it.

But even if you strangely are ("being yourself," right?), that's obviously not okay behavior.

In the end, the idea of "being yourself" is not an all-clear to be an asshole or a nuisance.

And while you should embrace your individuality and be proud of the unique mixture of things that create the one and only cocktail that is you, you should never forget about the fine print.

Be decent first.

Then, be yourself.