You hear it all the time. Just be yourself. What does that even mean?
You think, “I AM myself! I just can’t win. All you people ask me to do this, don’t do that, say this, don’t say that. You want me to jump through all of your hoops, implying that then I will be successful. I’ll have done it right. I’ll be let into the inner sanctum. Everything will finally be OK and I will be able to relax. So I jump through your hoops and then you tell me to just be myself? What the fuck?”
To everyone’s credit, most people are trying to be helpful. They think they have discovered the formula for success. Or they desperately hope they have found it and they think that if they can get everyone to follow the formula, they’ll be proven right. But here’s the thing about jumping through hoops. It never works. It doesn’t get you where you think it will. It doesn’t even get you where the hoopsters want you.
I started jumping through hoops in kindergarten. I had been lucky enough to have a mother who really, truly let me be myself until then. I spent the first five years of my life relatively untethered and barely clothed. I would run around the backyard, playing with my friends, both boys and girls, or with my favorite cat Tommy. I used to dress Tommy in my dolls’ dresses. I loved seeing those little fuzzy arms poking through the capped sleeves. One day he ran up a tree in his dress. Poor thing.
I was silly. I loved attention. I was curious. I loved make-believe. I sang and danced. I remember laughing all of the time.
Then I went to school. My temperament was not a fit for our educational system. When I was very little my mother gave up on trying to get me to sit in the high chair and would instead leave cheerios on the footrest. I would swipe and handful and shove them into my mouth on one of my many passes around the house. Somehow I managed not to starve.
In kindergarten I had to learn to sit still, do things on a schedule, perform tasks laid out for me. It was a rude awakening. The other kids were tough, too. They could tell I was different and it was like sharks sensing blood in the water. They seized on my weaknesses and exploited them. I had a favorite chair that I called “the shiny chair.” It must have been newer than the others and still had all of its lacquer. I thought it was pretty. The boys made a point of keeping the shiny chair away from me. I cried every day of kindergarten.
As the years passed, I finally figured out how to navigate the educational system with the bare minimum effort and made it through school, but by the time I finished college with a computer science degree, I was completely exhausted and miserable. I had jumped through every last hoop. I had molded myself into a proper upper-middle-class professional. I should have felt like I had finally made it, like my life was beginning. Instead I felt numb. I had lost my enthusiasm. I had lost my joy. I had nothing to look forward to.
I blamed it on my choice of career. I remembered back to those care-free days of make-believe and decided that I was miserable because I hadn’t followed my calling. I was supposed to be an actress.
So I went into acting, the thing I had always wanted to do. I had success early on because I was excited and fresh. My joy was back. But then I started jumping through the hoops, looking for the formula to success. There were hoops galore. Hoops from acting coaches. Hoops from casting directors. Hoops from fellow actors. Hoops, hoops, hoops. Study at this school, use this method, draw from your experience, no – use your imagination. Each person was offering the advice they had found helpful. But the only piece of advice that seemed to resonate with me was, “just be yourself.” I knew this was the best advice. Because really, the interesting people are the ones who are a little bit different, the ones who are truly themselves. The problem was, I had trained being myself the fuck out of me.
But here’s the secret. Being yourself is the only way you’ll succeed. It’s the only way you’ll be happy. Being what ANYONE else says will make you successful will not work. You’ll only be a copy of someone who became successful being themselves. Again, they think they’re being helpful by telling you what worked for them. But you’re not them. You’re you.
So what is being yourself?
When you can trust yourself, like yourself, be happy about what you do and how you do it, when you can embrace your peculiarities, your eccentricities, your strange approach life, you are being yourself.
I am now forty-five and I am just now learning to be myself again. I listen to myself before anyone else. I explore the things I find interesting. I spend time doing things that have value to me, whether or not they have perceived value to others or will supposedly lead me to garnering any amount of wealth or notoriety. It has nothing to do with my profession, although I believe that the more time I spend being myself, the more likely it is that the things I find interesting will become my profession. But that matters less and less to me. Because the mundane things I need to do in order to give me the time to do what I find interesting seem like less of a bother.
I’m glad I’ve done everything I have. Nothing has been wasted. I’m glad I got a good education. I’m glad I trained in acting and improvisation. But I’m also glad that I am at a place where I don’t care as much about all of that. I have given myself permission to be unproductive and aimless and have subsequently started to produce more than ever. I’m producing weird things, like this aimless, wandering blog post. I’m producing for no reason other than I feel like it. I’m starting to work on a one woman show that maybe no one will come see. But I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway because I want to. I find it interesting.
So how will you know you’re being yourself? You will feel successful. But it will feel different than when you get the empty reward you’ve been promised for meeting other people’s demands. The success that comes from being yourself is a calm, satisfied feeling. The feeling you get when you meet your own demands. And only you know what those are.