No matter what corner of the globe we come from, we hear the same piece of advice over and over again: just be yourself. This notion of authenticity tied up with “being yourself” is flawed. Who we are at this very moment, our current selves, are no more than the cumulative results of circumstance. If part of your identity is a love for horse-riding, then at some point, there would have been a circumstance that pushed you into trying it out as an activity. Not everyone can or will have that chance.
The idea of being yourself is a fragmented reflection of our upbringing. During childhood, we are very much passengers. Our parents inform our personalities. This includes our ambitions, desires, attitudes, habits, preferences, and sensibilities. Every decision of consequence for us goes through them: people we meet, activities we participate in, opportunities we try for. From adolescence, this decision-making responsibility gradually shifts from them to us until we finally become autonomous and self-sufficient members of society in adulthood. That, however, does not eliminate influence of the family on decisions, and that will continue to linger.
Imagine now at age 20, one hears the refrain of “being yourself” being sung from all corners of life, what would they do? The most natural instinct is to reflect back on what they found fulfilling or full of joy in their life up until that point. Taking a crude and tangible example, this could be playing a musical instrument. Perhaps through the busyness of University, they had not played in recent years and strives to pick back up. The crucial fact that is overlooked in scenario is that the decision to pick up the instrument during their childhood was not necessarily their own. Be it a combination of encouragement (nagging) or playing music being presented as “cool thing to do”, it can be traced back to the parents decision to let them learn. Instead of a musical instrument, it could very easily be a particular sport, or online gaming. The same applies to ideas. If, for example, one was brought up as a follower of a particular religion, there same randomness occurs there. No child chooses to enter a religion, it comes from the parents. This is all to say that our identities are a result of a series of happy accidents.
What I fear gets lost in the “just be yourself” advice is the willingness to try new things. If being oneself involves looking backwards into the past for answers, then it encourages you to keep within the bubble of your previous experiences. I am, of course, generalising here. I imagine everyone is open to having new experiences in some form of another. It, however, is a little bit harder during adulthood as many get “stuck in their ways”.
Instead of advising people to “just be yourselves”, I propose that it change to “actively choose your best selves.” If I were to be myself, I would probably do what I did during primary and intermediate school, namely watch TV, play Playstation, and occasionally play sports. While there is a time an place for that sort of thing, I would not be doing myself any favours. Instead, I have taken inspiration from many places and am actively choosing build the traits I admire in others, in myself. This is better is it not?