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Dating, Living, and Being Your Best Self

Dating, Living, and Being Your Best Self

Dating, Living, and Being Your Best Self

    In a comment on my post last week about living your life as if you were on a date, a reader named Jean posted this comment:

    Thanks for this article! But regarding the ‘be yourself’ advice… I’ve always wondered, which self? I have a best self who is on time, considerate, well dressed, brave, follows my dreams, etc. I also have a worst self who is late, selfish, lazy, a slob, and a scaredy-cat. The rest of the time I spend climbing away from one and towards the other, but frankly I spend more of my time near the ‘worst self’ end. I used to have a long-distance boyfriend who only saw my ‘best’ self and therefore had an unrealistic view of me. I got tired out trying to keep up his good opinion of me, and the relationship crashed because I wasn’t comfortable.

    Jean raises some really interesting questions, and I thought it would be instructive to consider them in a longer form than is really practical as a blog comment.

    My immediate thought is that the goal is to be our best selves all the time. But that shouldn’t be exhausting; in fact, I think that when we are truly being our best selves, it’s invigorating. Think of that energy we get when we meet someone and fall in love – you find yourself suddenly “on the ball” throughout your life, not just the parts that you spend with this new person. Or consider the creative person’s “flow”, that state of mind and action where everything just seems to come naturally, where we lose track of time, where ideas and their execution seem to blend together into a seamless, effortless whole. What is that if not us being our best selves?

    What’s exhausting is faking that. Pretending to be our best selves. Because usually we aren’t really being our best selves, we’re being someone else’s idea of what our best self should be – or what we imagine their idea of our best self is. Think about it: if you love doing something, if doing it feeds and fulfills you on a fundamental level, how hard is it to do that thing, to be that person? Usually, it takes a serious effort to keep us from doing it!

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    This is why I hate books like The Rules, a dating guide for women that essentially smothers the best self and replaces it with a facsimile self crafted to avoid offending anyone and to secure a mate at all costs. Look at some of their “Top Ten Rules”:

    • 2. Show up to parties, dances and social events even if you do not feel like it.
    • 5. If you are in a long-distance relationship, he must visit your three times before you visit him.
    • 8. Close the deal. Rules women do not date men for more than two years.

    Frankly, that sounds exhausting to me. The constant focus on marriage (that is, living towards the future instead of living in the now), the constant self-censoring to make sure you don’t put more into your relationship than your partner, the constant denial of your own feelings and state of mind – is that your best self, or the authors’?

    I don’t know anything about Jean or about the situation with her long-distance ex, but I have to wonder: was she really being her best self or the idea she had of what her best self should be like. I know that when I first found myself in the dating pool in my early 30s, I found it exhausting all the time – wearing clothes that I wasn’t all that comfortable in because I felt they were the “right” clothes, acting a social role that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with (as a gender studies professor, traditional gender roles leave me flat), putting on an “all is well in the world” attitude when sometimes I was nervous, overworked, or even flat broke. It took me years to realize that I wasn’t doing myself, or my dates, any favors by trying to be someone other than I was – even if I somehow managed to impress them, it wasn’t really me they were impressed by but some other guy whose part was played by me.

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    My own dating life took off when I started being as honest as possible about who I am, what I want, and where I wanted things to go. I dress nice, but I don’t dress out of character. I do those “chivalrous” things because I feel like it, not because it’s expected – and I expect the same kind of small considerations from my date, or I let her know that I’m really not the right kind of guy for her. I share my goals and aspirations, my values and beliefs, even my feelings on religion and politics (oh no!) freely, and encourage the same openness from my date.

    I’m not saying Jean or anyone else should be their “worst self”, on a date or anywhere else. I’m saying that there’s a good chance Jean’s strengths and the weaknesses she describes go hand in hand. For instance, she talks about being a “scaredy-cat” – but we’re all scared, to be honest. Not just in dating, but throughout our lives. What’s exhausting is to pretend we’re not, or to live our lives avoiding the things that scare us. Being our best selves doesn’t mean not being afraid, it means being honest about being scared, accepting that fear, and forging forward in spite of it. Jean talks about being lazy – but we’re often lazy out of fear, fear of failure, fear of being imperfect, fear of letting people (including ourselves) down. I’m not saying “be lazy”, I’m saying that laziness can easily arise out of a desire to do well by ourselves and by others and the worry that we can’t live up to that desire. When we open up to others in a real, honest way, those fears often dissipate – or at least become things we can deal with rather than things that control us.

    Do you see what I’m saying? When I say “be yourself”, I don’t mean cave in to your worst impulses, I mean put your real strengths on display while being honest – with yourself, especially – about how those strengths and your weaknesses fit together. Or more to the point: let yourself be human.

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    Here’s the thing: in dating as in business, teaching, marketing, writing, and just about everything else, it’s good to offend people, if you come by it honestly. I don’t mean you should start swearing at strangers, of course, but that the goal is to draw to yourself the people who are actually compatible, whether as partners, business associates, audiences, or customers, and avoid the ones who simply are not. Take a lesson from Apple, whose “I’m a Mac” commercials work precisely because they offend – they offend people who would never buy a Mac, and create a sense of community among the ones who would and do.

    To bring this down to the concrete, I would wager that Jean’s relationship – like so many others – failed not because it was simply too exhausting to be her best self, but because the person she was being when she tried to be that best self wasn’t really her. Maybe the relationship itself was on shaky ground, maybe she didn’t yet have the confidence in herself necessary for a strong relationship, maybe her partner wasn’t ready to accept her as her whole self. This is speculation, of course, but I think if the “best self” Jean put forward had really been her, she would have found it energizing, not tiring.

    I don’t pretend any of this is easy. I struggle to live up to what I’m saying here every single day, and I fail about as often. But they’re instructive failures, interesting failures – and with each one I feel a little closer to my best self. Hope this helps!

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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