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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 November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

    More About Continuous Learning

    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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