“Be yourself” can be really bad advice

There’s a category of advice that sounds good in theory but is pretty bad in practice. “Follow your passion” is one example. “Be yourself” is another.

The issue with “be yourself” is that it reeks of the fixed mindset and gets in the way of self improvement. It does so by encouraging the “This is just who I am – take it or leave it” mindset.

That is not to say we can change everything about ourselves. If you are an impatient person (speaking to myself) by nature, you are not going to become the most patient. But, you don’t have to either. Our traits and temperaments are part of a spectrum and we can always put in the work to stretch ourselves to move along that spectrum and learn to be flexible with how we apply ourselves in situations.

Put differently, if who you are is getting in the way of what you’d like to get done, stop being yourself and get better.

Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to ask folks to “become yourself.” It doesn’t just add a necessary air of intrigue to what is a fascinating lifetime journey of discovering our ever expanding capacity for change, it also focuses the journey on growth.

Besides, as Carol Dweck might say, becoming is better than being anyway.

Can’t talk yourself out of a problem you’ve acted yourself into

I was reminded of a wonderful story from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits book (I seem to be in Stephen Covey remembrance zone these past weeks) about a man in his seminar complaining about his wife calling him every hour asking him where he was and what he was doing. He just couldn’t seem to convince her to trust him. Curious, Covey asked him how he’d met.

It turned out that the man had met her at a similar seminar and had cheated on his ex-wife in the process.

“You can’t talk yourself out of a problem you behaved yourself into” – were Covey’s wise words to the man.

There’s a saying in George R R Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series (a.k.a Game of Thrones) – “words are wind.” In Westeros, what you say counts for every little. What you do, however, is everything. It made a lot of sense – they didn’t have social media to track reputations.

But, has social media and all the other kinds of media changed the fundamental principle behind the “words are wind” idea? I don’t think so. Yes, it is easier to build a beautiful facade around your track record. But, it is just as easy to break it – all it takes is one truth teller on Twitter. In some ways, the idea that “words are wind” applies more in today’s context.

All we have is our track record. If it is representative of who we are, then we must keep doing what we are doing. And, in the process, aim to do more with what we have, and better. If it is not representative of who we are, it is worth remembering that we can act ourselves into it.

What we do is the surest way of expressing who we are.