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Actually, You’re Not as Special as You Think You Are

Isn’t that the most liberating idea you’ve ever encountered?

Just this morning I was browsing through LinkedIn and I came across that familiar quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson which I’m sure you’re just as familiar with as I am. The quote is, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this quote, mulled it over, and noticed a warmly soothing smugness swelling inside. Today, though, it was different.

Perhaps it’s understanding people as controllers that was the new perspective through which I considered the quote today. I’ve known that people are controllers for decades now but maybe it just took a while to connect those particular dots. I’m also in the middle of teaching a brief Introduction to Psychology course at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. I’m teaching first-year medical students who are taking on the challenge of reimagining health care for the world’s vulnerable populations so we’re having many fascinating discussions about science, how things work, and accurate understandings of what it means to be alive. Of course, to be alive is to control, so all things controlling have been at the very front-est of my mind over the last week or so.

Once you understand how something works, your perspective is never the same. It doesn’t necessarily diminish the awe and beauty, but it does provide an unprecedented clarity. I still ooh and aah over stunningly spectacular sunrises and sunsets and take far too many photos of the vibrant displays than I should even though I know the sun isn’t actually rising and setting.

Whatever the reason, I was intrigued. I now have a plan to scrutinize other inspirational and motivational word strings in the same way. And I guess that’s the point that hit me this morning: It’s not the word string that is ever inspirational or motivational. This definitely applies to Waldo’s words. But I’m jumping ahead. Let me back up a bit.

Three central ideas from Waldo’s wisdom barged their way into my awareness this morning. The ideas were expressed for me in these words:

  • To be yourself;
  • a world constantly making you something else; and
  • the greatest accomplishment.

Let’s have a look at each of them.

To be yourself

I hate to be the one to break it to you but, as a matter of fact, you can never be anything else. A self who spends its life trying to be someone else is a pretending-to-be-someone-else self. A self who is consumed by impressing others is an impressing-others self. A self who is driven by career success is a race-you-to-the-top self. A self who constantly strives to improve and be better is an it-will-all-be-better-when self. The point is it’s always you being yourself.

 117702597, @123RF
Source: maridav, Image ID: 117702597, @123RF

Check the wording. I’ll emphasize it again. It’s YOURself. You are you. Self is self. Despite the amount you might spend on self-improvement courses, going to the gym, exotic meditation retreats, and the odd nip and tuck and double-over, you'll never be anything else but you. You can relax. You are being yourself. Always. It’s not a question of whether you’re being yourself. The really interesting idea is, Are you being the you you want to be?

a world constantly making you something else

The second idea is perhaps even more straightforward. The “world” isn’t making you do anything. Ever. It can certainly seem like demands come from "out there." People undoubtedly get the idea from time to time that other people expect certain things of them. There are also rules, standards, and policies in almost every social gathering of any kind. At all times, though, the demands or constraints are contained entirely within our own minds even though they might play out in the world beyond our minds. We only attend to other’s expectations if they’re important to us. We only follow rules and policies if we want to.

Strike two!

the greatest accomplishment

Really? Is he kidding? He doesn’t even say “your greatest accomplishment." He says “the greatest accomplishment." Frankly, I’d rather have a cure for COVID-19 or an end to global health inequities than learn that you’re being you. And that’s just for starters. There’s quite a long shopping list of accomplishments I’d want to knock off first before “be myself” made an appearance. Perhaps things weren’t as dire in Emerson’s time but it still astounds me that “to be yourself” would be regarded as the greatest accomplishment of his age.

OK. Where are we up to/

  • You’re only ever you, so be the you you want.
  • The world is your adventure playground, not your antagonist.
  • Humanity is capable of extraordinary things through persistence, creativity, and collaboration. Being yourself is not one of them.

Being yourself is about as special as digestion or thermoregulation or neuroplasticity. It’s going to happen anyway. So chill out and get on with some of the far more amazing activities available to you by nature of your design as a controller. Better yet, find ways to help remove the barriers that far too many of the world’s population face in being the controllers they could be.

We really are all in this together. Realizing that, and all that it implies, might indeed turn out to be a truly great accomplishment.