Just Who Do You Think You Are?

“Just be yourself.”

How many times have you heard this three-word bit of useless advice? Yes, you read that right: I wrote “useless”. Why useless? Two main reasons:

  1. There’s nothing “just” about being yourself. You’re complicated. You’re deep. If you were a rock or a piece of wood, perhaps you could “just” present yourself without thought to your audience.
  2. You can only be yourself. Even if you act as if you’re someone else, you’re being yourself. Apparently, you’re an actor. Or a con artist. Hey, acting like someone else might be exactly who you are!

If someone tells you to “just” be yourself, you might think for a second, “OK, then — who am I?”

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Creative Commons License photo credit: natamagat

You might find that you’re rather complicated. You’re a thoughtful, intelligent, caring person. You might also be a parent, a dog-lover, a teacher, a business person, a singer, a CEO of a thriving company, a practical jokester, a oenophile, a stamp collector, a martial arts expert, a gardener, a cook — yes, indeed, you may be all this and more. Or you may be something else entirely…

“It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’.”
-Quote from the Harvard Implicit Association Test Home Page

So, here you are. You’re this fascinating and multi-faceted character, and some vapid goofball thinks you can “just” be yourself, as if you were a bit of plankton or an amoeba.

You can do better. Instead of just being yourself, why not present your very best self to the audience at hand?

For example, let’s say you are a fabulous parent to two toddlers. That’s a big part of “who you are”. When you’re with your children, you take on a tone of voice and project an image that is appropriate for your tots.

Now take that same tone of voice and image that you present to your children and use it to give a business presentation to the board of directors. Or lecture to a class of college students. Or to talk to the guy who’s fixing your car.

Probably not so effective to be your “exceptional-toddler-parent” self for those particular audiences!

If you think you know yourself, think again. So let’s go back to the very essence of “who you are” — who are you, exactly? (For an eye-opener, I recommend taking some of the online tests at the Harvard Implicit Association Test. You may find out that you know yourself very well — or maybe not!)

Let’s say, for example, that you are “a thoughtful, intelligent, caring person.”

No matter which role you take on — parent, martial artist, teacher, business person, dog lover — these characteristics describe the essence of “who you are”. You carry these characteristics with you, regardless of the audience in front of you.

And because you are intelligent and caring, you might decide that your audience will be more enthusiastic if you decide to act like someone else entirely! Someone smarter, funnier, braver, stronger, sillier, dopier, goofier, angrier, more confident…whatever.

“Pretending to be braver than you are” is also a bit of presentation advice you’ll often hear — almost as much as that crazy bit about “being yourself.”

If you have to pick between these two bits of contrary advice — which would you choose?

And “just” how well do you know yourself– really?