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Why being yourself matters

Why being yourself matters

“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice…it is conformity.”
                 ~ Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself.

Detail of facade, Engel Apotheke in Vienna

There will never be anyone else like you in the future of the universe. There has never been anyone exactly like you since human life began. That’s why being yourself is more important than anything else; certainly more than the fear that traps people into conforming.

Non-conformists have always had a rough time. Society seems to need and fear them in roughly equal measure. As a person who was a teenager in the “swinging 60s,” I’ve seen a gray tide of conservatism flow back steadily to reclaim nearly all the ground it lost during that decade. Is this an advantage? If it is, I can’t see it. But that’s how life works: two steps forward, followed by one-and-a-half back as those who lost their power try to reverse the process.

The forces of the status quo—of conformity—have been strong again in recent years. Maybe that’s behind an upsurge in interest in self-development. When the outside world is intent on forcing you into a bland, acceptable mold, people naturally turn elsewhere to find an outlet for what matters most: their own uniqueness.

Adding some spice to life

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Even the Bible says it. Jesus urged his followers to be like salt; to spice up the world with new ideas. He didn’t tell them to keep their heads down and do whatever their “betters” amongst the Romans and the Pharisees told them. You don’t start a new religion by fitting in. Today’s religious leaders are nearly all arch-conservatives, so we forget what radical non-conformists people like the Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed were during their lives. Jesus wasn’t put to death for doing what the leaders of the society of his day approved of, was he?

Those who benefit most from the status quo are naturally the least interested in change, and they find allies in the fearful and the authoritarian. In the quotation at the head of this article, Rollo May suggests conformity is due to lack of courage. He certainly had a point. Many people suppress their ideas, hopes, and dreams because they’re afraid to stand out and draw attention to themselves. Conformity always includes a threat of punishment if you fail to fit in, whether it comes from ridicule, being shunned by others, or direct attack. Those who seek conformity have never been afraid to back up their wishes with force.

Conformity implies a fundamental mistrust of others

I believe there’s a more fundamental power behind the urgency with which authoritarian conservatives seek to suppress individuality. That power is lack of trust. Wise leaders and outstanding thinkers are alike in two things: they’re usually non-conformists on an epic scale—and they display a deep trust in the basic goodness, intelligence, and capacity for development of their fellow human beings.

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In stark contrast, the most determined proponents of conformity have always been dictatorships. Under a dictatorship, any kind of variation from prescribed ways of thinking or acting is punished. Eccentrics of all kinds are weeded out. Nothing is permissible save blind adherence to the dictator’s edicts.

Conservative thinkers often suggest too much freedom will lead to anarchy and the collapse of all standards. Since they cannot trust others to behave reasonably, they always want more rules. Yet a dictatorship is exactly what you get when the ideas and standards of one group are enforced everywhere by the rule of law. Whether it’s a nation or a business, a dictatorship suppresses creativity, individuality, and freedom in the cause of “preventing license.”

If you can’t trust yourself, why should others trust you?

Being who and what you are is the most natural thing there is. To suppress it, whether through fear, yielding to social pressure, or lack of confidence always leads to trouble. That’s why millions of people today lead lives of frustration and desperation. They denied who they are in the hope that the powers that be would reward them. Their reward was mediocrity, depression and a nagging sense that life like that is scarcely worth living.

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There may be a cost. Some people, even some friends, will disapprove of you as you truly are and will let you know it. There will be setbacks along the way. Yet the price for being yourself can never be as great as the price you will pay for stepping aside from your basic nature: a price paid in frustration, dissatisfaction, and the hopeless realization of all that you might have been, but now can never attain. The English poet A.E. Housman, a closet homosexual who lived a life of outward conformity and lonely respectability, expressed something of the idea like this:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Take up the challenge. Be whatever nature designed you to be. Never mind whether you face disapproval from those who lack the courage to follow the same route.

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Conformity has very little to recommend it. Trust yourself and trust others. Our world has so little trust even a little more is precious. If you can’t trust who you are—the naturally valuable, curious, interesting, and exciting person you were born to be—why should anyone else trust you?

Mediocrity and inner frustration are the true price of conforming. Only those with the courage openly to live their dreams can ever hope to find lasting satisfaction with their lives.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest, and satisfaction to leadership and working life. Recent articles there on similar topics include Teaching eagles to run and The Law of Repulsion. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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