Why “Just Be Yourself” is Terrible Advice

I was listening to the radio recently, and the hosts were discussing a survey about career-ending moves made in job interviews. An example mentioned was repeatedly swearing in the interview.  One host teased the other, saying this applies to her since she frequently swears. The other retorted: “Look, I’m just being honest and true to myself. That’s my message to kids out there: be yourself.”

I wanted to laugh, because it seems like the real-life message was: “Don’t swear repeatedly in a job interview if you want that job”. And is that really so hard and dishonest? If you can’t avoid swearing repeatedly during a 20 minute job interview, do you really have the self-control to effectively work for 40 hours per week?”

While they certainly seemed to be joking around, I think many people today take the “just be yourself” mantra very seriously. It inspired me to reflect on it for several days and discuss this advice with friends. I’ve received this advice and appreciated it, as well as given it to a few of my former students. Yet I came to the conclusion that “Just be yourself” is terrible advice.

Let’s use the job interview scenario as an example. I approach my instructor or colleague and ask for advice. I’m nervous about this job interview because I really want to do well. In the best possible scenario, nervousness is my only problem, and this person recognizes that. By telling me to “just be myself”, I could feel more confident in the interview. If this role really is an ideal fit for me and I’ve already done enough preparation, then perhaps I succeed in nailing that interview. Mission accomplished and no harm done, right?

So why was it terrible advice? For several reasons, and again, that was the best-case scenario. I find this phrase particularly unhelpful and dangerous to young people, who are generally looking for or in need of guidance. “Be yourself” is a rejection of guidance. It is essentially the same as saying to someone who is angry: “Don’t be mad.” Has that ever helped someone feel less angry?

“Be yourself” might be what I say when I have no idea what to say, because it seems like the safest answer. In the process, I claim authority on two subjects that I probably know little about. The first is the job interview itself. Do I really know what this interview will be like? Do I understand the job requirements, the company, and the interviewer well enough to make that call?

The second subject is my student/colleague themselves. Do I really, truly, deeply understand who that person is? Does that person even truly and deeply understand who they are? And do we have the exact same version in our heads at that time? In my mind, I might think I’m telling them to be the confident, intelligent person I assume them to be. They might think I am enabling them to be the rude, wise-cracking jerk they assume I appreciate. So you can see it’s either a vague fallback statement for someone without anything constructive to say, or an overly ambitious judgment call that could be completely wrong.

“Just be yourself” sounds like good advice at first, but what if you’re a jerk? What if you’re a serial killer? Maybe you should be someone else. “Believe in yourself” is fine, but “anything is possible”? No, it’s not. Expressing yourself, respecting yourself, and being honest with yourself are somewhat tautological but not usually directly harmful. But “you have to love yourself first” has a crucial flaw: people who really love themselves are called narcissists, and they make horrible relationship partners.”

– Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before

Yet this phrase is directly and indirectly tattooed all over modern society. And amidst some truly wonderful tolerance compared to previous generations, we have given birth to a “cancel culture” that renders “just be yourself” a lie. We have grown so accustomed and comfortable with telling ourselves that we’re already perfect, that we ignore the logic that this statement is either false or only applicable to certain extraordinary people: like me! And because I’m so perfect, I have the right (no, the responsibility) to verbally assault and crush the career and social lives of people who I feel do not have the right to be themselves. This is where it becomes so dangerous and lives begin to fall apart.

So what do we do? Do we just let powerful, famous people continue to do intolerant acts and speak words of prejudice? Do we stop recognizing the good in ourselves and others? No, no. Please don’t get me wrong.

What I’m suggesting is we start on a personal, individual level and make careful, realistic assessments. This starts with acknowledging that “be yourself’ shouldn’t be said anytime to anyone. It starts with admitting that I can’t claim to know who you truly are, but that I might see areas where you can become better in a particular area (if I actually know you well). You probably can see the same for me too in this case. It starts with recognizing mentors in our life, and giving them the freedom to speak to us truthfully without fearing that we must feel good about everything they say. I’m thankful that I’m far from perfect in any regard, because it gives me room to grow, to learn, and improve myself. The advice I try to live by is:

"Never stop trying to be the best YOU that you can be."

There’s this oversimplified view that we need to stop hating ourselves and start loving ourselves. But in real life we fluctuate on a spectrum between the two, and need each other to prevent us from dwelling too much on either side: self-hate or self-infatuation. So while “be yourself” may arise out of kindness or love, real love comes through wanting the best for someone else. It comes from teaching your child not to steal candy from other children, so they grow up to be respectful and generous. It comes from helping someone overcome an addiction they’ve been struggling with or from stopping them from saying something stupid when they’re drunk. Tolerance and love are not the same thing. A tolerant person ignores the angry shouts of a homeless person. A loving person buys them food, listens to them, and treats them with respect. One is a lot harder than the other. We can all strive to be the best versions of ourselves: that isn’t becoming someone else; it’s becoming more fully ourselves.

Life is like a Puzzle

“Life is like a puzzle gifted one piece at a time. You never know the content of the next piece or how many pieces you will receive. All you can do is appreciate each piece and try to see how they fit together.

More impressive is how your puzzle fits together with other people’s, forming one grand puzzle that reaches around the world and connects the past to the present. The empty spaces, to be filled by the future, gives us reason to be afraid and hopeful. But an ever-expanding puzzle is one that grows more and more interesting: full of potential and possibilities.”

– Andrew Zeller