The real value of the trite message to be yourself

201512-video-game-file1451270048986If you’ve read any self-help literature, you’ve seen the advice to be yourself. If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Me too.

Trust me, I get it. I know I need to be me. It’s obvious. Who else am I going to be?

The advice is ubiquitous for a reason though. Enough people get enough value from the message, that it won’t go away.

Over time, I think I’ve found the real value of the message. It’s not that you’re being a phony. The advice is useful because you’re blunting part of yourself. You’re muting the parts of you that might be your greatest strengths.

Human beings are risk averse creatures. It’s how we’re wired. In most scenarios, you and I will behave in ways that limit the down side.

But what happens when you limit the down side? You limit the up side. Risk aversion suppresses variability. And less variability means less opportunity for reaching the highest highs.

How does this manifest in your career? Let’s take the case of your hobbies. Maybe you like to do something that you don’t openly share with the people at work:

  • You might like to read science fiction.
  • You might like to play video games.
  • You might like to knit mittens.
  • You might like to bake cookies.

Why don’t you share these hobbies? Because they don’t really have much to do with your work. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll look dorky. Or maybe the people at work don’t do these things, and you don’t want to set yourself apart from them.

So, you decide to not share. What’s the big deal?

The problem can show up in several different ways:

  • You’re not sharing part of what makes you you, which stunts the relationships you build at work.
  • You’re seen as inaccessible and robotic, which steers people away from you in the first place.
  • You lose the opportunity to connect with people who share your interests, as unlikely as it might seem.

If you censor yourself, and try to fit in with the crowd, you’ll do just that…fit in with a boring crowd. You won’t rock the boat, but you won’t have the fun of working with people who really get you.

Sure, the more of yourself you choose to share, the greater chance you’ll turn someone off. That’s a real risk. You might turn off the very person who could offer you the career opportunity you’ve dreamt of.

I’m not denying that risk. But you pay a price by constraining yourself at work. You probably spend more waking hours with people at work than people in your own house. And work is the place you want to be a robot?

It feels like there’s a balance between being yourself and maximizing your opportunity for career advancement. That compromise probably exists. But before you immediately decide in favor of your career, think about what you’re sacrificing by telling a weak form of your personal story.

Think about who you want to be, both at work and at home. Think about the kinds of people you want to spend your time with. Think about the ways you’d like, or not like, to interact with the people you’re around all day.

That’s the value of the advice to be yourself. No one’s saying you’re walking around pretending to be someone different. But you might be pretending to be a muted version of yourself. And that’s not cool, for so many different reasons.

Think a little less about how to fit in, and a little more about how to own your whole self. Your career will be more rewarding, even if you take some unexpected detours along the way.

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