3 reasons why 'be yourself' is terrible advice

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'Be yourself' is advice often heard. And when I hear it in politics, I cringe.

I witnessed a few events in the last days that reminded me of Adam Grant's 2016 article "Unless you're Oprah, 'Be Yourself' is Terrible Advice".

'Be yourself' is advice often heard. And when I hear it in politics, I cringe.

Often the advice remains high-level. It's not clear what it means. That's either impractical or an encouragement to act in ways that are damaging in politics.

Grant argues that self-monitoring is a better strategy than 'being yourself' in many contexts.

  • High self-monitoring means being aware of and adjusting your behavior to your environment
  • Low self-monitoring (='be yourself') means being guided by your inner state, regardless of circumstances.

In politics, 'be yourself' aka. low self-monitoring is terrible advice.

Here are 3 reasons:

  • To self-monitor is part of the job. It's expected of us to self-monitor, perhaps nowhere as much as in politics. We very often need to manage our emotions: we may feel one thing but have to show something else to others. All of us need to do this, but more so those in politics:
"Once you enter politics, you are always on show. You never jump a queue, you never get impatient with a driver or a waitress or a check-in clerk. You never lose your temper. You never fail to light up when someone comes over for a picture or an autograph. You surrender the entirety of your private life for the duration. People are watching." (Ignatieff, 2013: 53 in Weinberg 2020)

Studies show that this high degree of self-monitoring is stressful in the workplace - and in politics in particular.

  • It's not easy to know what it is that we are meant to be authentic to. Is it our thoughts, what we feel in the moment, emotions that we try to express? Or do we mean values, identity, purpose? Even at that deeper level: our values will often conflict in a specific situation, we have multiple identities and perhaps different purposes across areas and stages of our lives. So, 'be authentic' is much easier said than done. And because it sounds so easy, we put additional pressure on people, suggesting they should easily figure this out.
  • It can be an excuse for inaction. 'This is who I am' is powerful when it is the result of introspection and trying things out. But it is an excuse in the absence of that kind of work. It's a shortcut. Assuming that there is one fixed self is the opposite of having a growth mindset: not 'I am not a good public speaker' but 'I haven't tried it out much, yet'.

'Be yourself' is terrible advice because it neglects the role of self-monitoring, because it does not help figure out what part of ourselves is relevant in a given situation, and because it can be an excuse for inaction.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. Let's get rid of the 'be yourself' advice, but not authenticity:

I like how Prof Herminia Ibarra re-frames authenticity as a process: authenticity is not something we have, but a process of 'acting on your own authority', of being the 'author' and defining who we are, not just in words but through action (see below for more).

p.s. 👇 below, find the latest podcast, what I'm currently reading/listening to and my favourite quote this week

🎙️ My latest podcast

The last episode is with Sahak Ibrahimkhil, now running as candidate of Volt Germany:

Sahak Imbrahimkhil - Deciding to Run for Office
About my guest Sahak Ibrahimkhil is a member of the pan-European party Volt and seeking to be lead candidate for the party in the 2024 European elections. Sahak shares his reasons to run, how he came to the decision, how he prepares for campaigning, what people with a migration background

📚 What I read & listen to

Opinion | Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice. (Published 2016)
We pay a high price socially, personally and professionally for being authentic. There’s a better alternative.
What does it really mean for leaders to be authentic?
“Be authentic” — that’s what organizations, brands and people keep being told. But too often, following that advice can limit us, especially at work, says Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior. She proposes an expansive way to think about authenticity, one that will ensure we keep gr…

🖋️ My favourite quote

Two powerful questions from the book Reboot:

"How are you complicit in creating the conditions of your life that you say you don't want?"


"in what ways does that complicity serve you?" (p. 30)