Being Yourself

Why is it we are so driven to please everyone in our lives — be it work, relationships, business or what have you? We find ourselves running after clients striving to do business with every prospect that comes our way without thinking twice if we should do business with them. We build relationships with others without first considering our own choices and preferences. We say yes to every social commitment without evaluating it, and because we are so used to doing it all the time, we don’t think twice about it. Just because you have known someone in the past is not a good enough reason to spend time with them in the present, let alone in the future. For instance, we shouldn’t worry about abandoning old friends and making new ones.

My parents will often do things for the convenience of others while sacrificing their own happiness. They try to help others at the cost of their own well-being, which I detest. They find it hard to say no to social commitments (among other things), and I suspect they are not alone in this. They are so sensitive to the needs of others that they forget to express their own courageous selves, time and time again. They forget that when they don’t prioritize their own lives, others will. I fret the pendulum has swung too far down the sensitivity quotient for them.

As a son, it is often frustrating for me because I know they are not able to express themselves fully because they want to fit in with others and are averse to being “unconventional” for a variety of reasons. Maybe it’s too late for them to change now, but I take solace in the fact that all I can do is make them aware of this from time to time and leave it up to them how they choose to go about it. I cannot change them, nor do I want to.

One reason we want to please others is because we haven’t really thought about ourselves — our likes, our interests, our choices, etc. In the process, we have lost touch with ourselves, be it work, relationships, or what have you. Moreover, when we try to accommodate others at the expense of our own identity, we know that’s not who we are inside. We try to be nice and polite to the other person and empathize with them, but that doesn’t come across as genuine because there is a disconnect between how we feel inside and what we do (our actions/behaviors). Not to mention, we have also forgotten to be healthily selfish.

Here’s a personal example that comes to mind. My parents have a knack for telling me time and again that I am different (not in a flattering way, but in a way that you stand out when you should fit in with the world), but I take it as a compliment every time. In fact, I am glad I don’t fit in with others. I am unique in that way. I believe no one in the world has the exact set of interests, beliefs, and world views as you do. I think we are all unique until we lose our true identity somewhere along the way in our journey to adulthood.

As designer and educator James Victore has said, we forget that the things that made us weird as kids make us great today. As children, we might be told we are weird, which is really a misnomer for being different because some of us stand out from the crowd, don’t follow the rules, and follow the beat of our own drum. We challenge the status quo in our own creative ways. We are discouraged from asking questions by our “teachers” (to keep the status quo). We are asked to draw “inside the lines”. We are taught to be a certain way and to do things as everyone else. In design terms, our schools are not that different from workers in a factory or a modern-day cubicle workplace. They are all designed for us to fit in.

The problem is when we try to fit in with others at the cost of losing our own self-identity, we are neither able to fully embrace ourselves nor can we make the jump and fit in with the herd. We end up suffocating in the middle. Our heart tells us to go one way, while our mind sways us in the other direction. This is also not to say that fitting in with others is the answer (it’s not!). I think we owe it to ourselves and to others to remain true to ourselves.

As Oscar Wilde has said:

You may as well be yourself because everybody else is already taken.

One reason why you abandon some of your old friends (and make new ones) is because you have evolved over time, and maybe your world views reflect that. Rather than attempting to reconcile your views with others, it’s okay to move on. There is nothing wrong with that when your old friends are implicitly and unwittingly keeping you from living the life you want. I’ve also had family friends in the past who have moved on with keeping in touch with us (and that’s okay). All we can do is accept it and move on.

When I look back at some of the relationships (including friendships) in my life, one of the main reasons they didn’t work out was because we were too different, so any attempt to reconcile our values was futile. Instead of accepting that, we got frustrated and tried to “make it work”, but it was only a matter of time before they ended. Of course, looking back it’s obvious why they didn’t work, and the best thing would have been to move on from that (for both of our sakes). This goes back to knowing yourself.

I was reminded of this not too long ago in my work when I was evaluating my own “brand”, so to speak. I found that due to my brand’s generic and non-specific messaging and positioning, I was (implicitly) trying to attract everyone. In the process, I was not attracting my ideal clients — I was trying to “fit in” implicitly even though I knew in my mind exactly the type of clients I wanted to work with.

The irony is that we want to be different and stand out by fitting in with the rest (to keep the status quo because we are afraid) and talk about our work like everyone else. As I’ve learned the hard way, “marketing” can often fall on deaf ears until we define ourselves and tell our story in a genuine and authentic way. We have to be really specific with who we can help and how we can help them, and we must make that explicit in order to attract (and work with) our ideal clients all of the time.

You see, the goal of business isn’t to do business with everyone, but only those who believe what you believe. When you work with only those who believe what you believe, you don’t have to worry about manipulating your audience (readers, clients, customers) with promotions, discounts, giveaways or what not (which although fairly benign doesn’t inspire loyalty and only works for a short while) because you are being yourself and you end up inspiring them. This leads to building trust and loyalty with them in the long run — the kind that cannot be bought.

Of course, the irony is when you work (or spend time) with only those who believe what you believe, you attract more attention from “your people”. That’s the kind of thing that inspires loyalty and trust and is non-manipulative because you don’t have to “act” a certain way. You just are.

Another example is organizations that hire employees who are a “good fit” for their culture, and every organization has one which reflects the values of the people and how they make decisions and do work. In fact, that “good fit” often trumps a potential hire’s technical skills because those can always be learned later, but you can’t change a person to fit in with your organizational culture.

This is not different from taking clients in your business simply for (bad) money if they are not a good fit for the work you do. When you make decisions based on money alone, it always ends up becoming a poor decision in the long term, which inevitably comes and bites you. This is why I schedule a short phone call with prospects before I agree to work with them to ensure we are a good fit and that I can help them get the results they seek.

Similarly, you are more likely to connect with someone on a personal level if they are more like you (having similar values, beliefs, and/or world views) than different from you (I know from experience). In relationships, if you don’t define at the outset the kind of person you want to be with, you will never know when they come and pass you by. That is also not to say you don’t leave any room for serendipity, but you do need to have your own filters and criteria in some form or fashion to even remotely find a person you want to spend time with. This reminds me of that Lewis Carroll quote, which I paraphrase — when we don’t know where we want to go, any road will take us there.

Stay true to yourself. You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You are who you are for a reason. Pay heed to that. Have a damn opinion. Learn to say no to others. The mistake we make often is we try to please everyone and forget who we are in the process.

I am reminded of this Bruce Lee quote:

I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.

When you truly know who you are and you can communicate that with other people, then you’re talking. You’re doing a service both to yourself and to the other person. Not to mention, you might be saving valuable time for yourself and for them if it doesn’t end up working out later.

When you’re trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. If everyone is your customer, who really is your customer? Or if everyone is your friend, who really is your friend? Unless you fully know yourself, you can’t expect others to know you. You will have a difficult time being in relationships or doing work that matters.

Unless you are your true authentic self, you’ll always face a conflict between your inner self and with others around you. Whoever you are, accept it. That is not to suggest you can’t keep bettering yourself, but stop justifying yourself to others. The reason you’re doing that is probably because you’re spending time with the “wrong” kind of people.

As the American writer, Elbert Hubbard has said:

Never explain — your friends do not need it, and your enemies will not believe you anyway.

Here’s the thing. You can’t be everyone to everyone. Decide who you’re going to be and work (or be) with only those who believe what you believe. Life is too short for anything less.

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