Emmett: “What if you’re trying to be somebody you are?”
-Dialogue from “Legally Blonde” (a surprisingly good, smart, funny, and feminist movie).
We talk a lot about how important it is to “be yourself.” And of course I see the great value in this. When you live in a culture that has powerful and unreasonable expectations about what you’re supposed to be like — based on your gender, your race, your age, your upbringing, your looks, your geography, and more — of course there’s value in pushing back against that. Of course there’s value in insisting that as long as you’re a basically decent and ethical person, you shouldn’t have to try to force yourself into boxes you just don’t fit into, and you don’t have to live up to anybody’s standards but your own.
But I think that sometimes, in some situations, there is value in not being yourself.
Here’s what I mean. I started thinking about this when I was talking with a fellow writer, someone a couple/few decades younger than me, who was talking about their anxieties about self-promotion. I said that I totally understood this anxiety: I have it as well. Writers tend to be introverts, remote observers, the exact opposite of the personality required to be a publicist. And self-promotion requires a degree of self-confidence, and confidence in the value of your work, that borders on arrogance — confidence that many people lack, and that women especially get pounded out of us from an early age.
But I also said that my greatest regrets as a writer were regrets over missed opportunities: large, exciting doors that opened briefly, and then closed, because I didn’t have the gumption to walk through them and announce myself. And I said that a huge part of the reason I’d gotten to a place where I could work as a writer full-time — something I wanted passionately and had been working towards fiercely, for decades — was that I was willing to suck it up and do self-promotion. Despite the fact that I hated it, that I wasn’t any good at it, that I had no aptitude or stomach for it, I had to suck it up and do it anyway. If I was going to do the thing that was most deeply in my nature — writing — and devote myself to it full-time, I had to be willing to do something that was entirely antithetical to that nature. And I had to get good at it. Or at least competent.
I’ve found that many smart, talented people have a stumbling block: We don’t like to be bad at things. We’re used to learning things quickly, and we’re used to being good at things. So when we come across something that’s hard, something that doesn’t come naturally, something where our learning curve is slow and torturous, something that makes us actively uncomfortable, we tend to give up. Because we’re used to picking things up quickly, we often assume that, if we aren’t picking something up quickly, we’re never going to pick it up at all.
But I think that there are very few areas in life where we’re naturally good at every single aspect. You might have an aptitude for medical care, but not have an aptitude for rigorous record-keeping. You might have an aptitude for plumbing, but not have an aptitude for customer relations. You might have an aptitude for scholarship, but not have an aptitude for bureaucracy. You might have an aptitude for starting a business, but not have an aptitude for bill collecting. You might have an aptitude for writing or painting or music or just about any art form, but not have an aptitude for the self-promotion that just about any artist needs. If you want to do the thing you most love, the thing at which you would excel, you might have to learn to do something you hate, and are not very good at.
And I’ve found that, at least sometimes, learning to do things that didn’t come naturally to me had unexpected payoffs, in surprising areas of my life. I worked for years as a bill collector for a local LGBT newspaper — a job that absolutely, 100% did not come easily to me. But learning how to do it didn’t just give me the opportunity to work at that newspaper. It taught me how to ask for what I need and want and deserve, clearly and firmly, while still being respectful, being reasonably flexible, and maintaining an ongoing friendly relationship. And learning how to do self-promotion has done wonders for my self-confidence as a writer. I think I write better, with less self-doubt and more strength and clarity, because of it.
We should absolutely be who we are. (As long as “who we are” isn’t “total raging asshole.”) But if we’re going to be who we are, I think we sometimes have to work to be things that we’re not.