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Apr 03 2014

In (Moderate) Praise of Not Being Yourself

legally-blonde-movie-posterElle: “No more trying to be something that I’m just — I’m just not.”

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.

Totally agreed.

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.

Learning_curve_chartI’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.

Thoughts?

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  1. 1
    apfergus

    Absolutely. I am non-confrontational to the extreme. I could happily (this is so not the right word, but I can’t cogently describe it better) sit in the background and let my environment affect my decisions in some kind of social Brownian motion, but I’d miss out on, like you say, opportunities that would greatly enrich my life. So I work hard to be more assertive and more confident in myself so I don’t miss out.

  2. 2
    Chris Hall

    Ironically, just today I was looking at your blog entries promoting your new book and wistfully thinking, “I wish I was as comfortable promoting myself as Greta is.” If I had a book, I would have to struggle with a lot of anxiety to get those posts up, fearing that everyone who saw them would think I was a narcissist.

    And that’s not how your posts promoting your books or lectures come off to me. But I think that I’m always afraid that no matter how many nice things people say about my work, if they were just to look a little bit closer, they’d see that I’m actually a fraud and a talentless hack. I have a really hard time accepting compliments about my writing, or even my general decency as a human being, and it translates into difficulty in promoting myself.

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    If I had a book, I would have to struggle with a lot of anxiety to get those posts up, fearing that everyone who saw them would think I was a narcissist.

    Chris Hall @ #2: I do fear that. Every single time. I’m less fearful now than I used to be, and it’s less of a struggle than it once was — but it’s still hard. I’m better at it now than I once was, but I doubt that it will ever be easy for me.

    But I think that I’m always afraid that no matter how many nice things people say about my work, if they were just to look a little bit closer, they’d see that I’m actually a fraud and a talentless hack. I have a really hard time accepting compliments about my writing, or even my general decency as a human being, and it translates into difficulty in promoting myself.

    Oh, man. Imposter syndrome. I hate that. For me, it often shows up as “I’m not trained in anything, I’m not a philosopher or a scientist or a historian or a trained journalist, I’m just a smart thoughtful person who can write, who the hell cares what I think?” It took me a long-ass time to realize that “smart thoughtful person who can write” is actually a very rare commodity. (And for the record: You are a smart, thoughtful person who can write.)

    It helps me somewhat to remember that every single freaking writer I have ever met has imposter syndrome. I don’t know if I’ve ever met one who doesn’t. It doesn’t help me not have it, but it helps me push through it.

  4. 4
    razzlefrog

    I thought you were heading in the direction of “you should not be yourself” being a way of saying “don’t stagnate”. “Be adaptive, be flexible, change sometimes.” “Recognize yourself as dynamic and allow yourself to evolve around others.”

    That to me–with my headstrong, sometimes pushy, nature–has been the most valuable lesson so far in my life. Learning empathy and not digging my heels in too reflexively. Or rationalizing keeping bad habits to “be myself”.

    But I agree with your take, too. :)

  5. 5
    Greta Christina

    razzlefrog @ #4: I like your take, too. And in a way, it’s not that different a take. We all have to stretch ourselves in different ways, I think: that can be “learn to be more assertive,” or it can be “learn to be more flexible and empathetic.”

  6. 6
    triple3a

    Very good points.  I’m all for challenging myself in ways I don’t initially see the benefit of and may struggle with at the beginning (as long as that struggle is self-motivated and makes sense).

    Let me give some examples.  When I was in the military I had to drive.  I was a fairly competent driver.  I only earned my driver’s license before joining the service at my mother’s insistence.  I would never have had one otherwise.

    When I lived in a Midwestern American city (which has nearly nonexistent public transportation), not having a car was a huge hinderance.  I now live in an East Coast city with excellent public transportation.  I don’t have a license here because it absolutely makes no sense for me to drive here when I can pretty much get where I need to go without one.  Plus, drivers in my city are routinely rude, aggressive, and annoying.  I see no need to contribute to the problem, even though I’m pretty polite myself.

    Also, when I was young, I had to attend piano lessons.  This was non-negotiable.  Needless to say, I hated it.  Had I been allowed to choose my extracurricular activity, I very well may have chosen a musical instrument.

    But again, I agree with the thrust of your article (the idea that initially uncomfortable activities and stretch and benefit us in unseen and valuable ways).  I guess I’m of two minds on this particular topic.  Sorry if this was a bit of a rant, but that’s my two cents.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    As always, very well stated. This one gets bookmarked for future reference.

    I have been involved in a number of projects — writing, politics, fan conventions — that I believed in and was good at, but which required actually going out and promoting. I am not so much an introvert as “happily asocial” so pressing flesh, kissing ass and being my own cheering squad does not come easily.

    @razzlefrog #4 – One of the maxims I try to live by is, “Be yourself. But if you can be a unicorn, be a unicorn.”

  8. 8
    John Horstman

    This post makes me think of this bit from I <3 Huckabees.

  1. 9
    The Reading List, 4/9/2014 » Almost Diamonds

    […] In (Moderate) Praise of Not Being Yourself–”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.” […]

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