Oliver Burkeman: This column will change your life

'First and foremost, it's important to be yourself on a first date," writes the relationship expert Lisa Steadman, author of It's A Breakup, Not A Breakdown, though she shouldn't be singled out for mockery since she's merely repeating romantic advice that well-meaning people have been offering since the Neolithic period. It's not only dating, either: trawl the self-help shelves or magazine racks and you'll find that Just Being Yourself is the key to performing well at job interviews, making friends and winning at business negotiations. A new book, Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want, urges companies to just be themselves, too, and offers 288 pages of guidance, presumably because printing a book three words long would have been impractical.

What's unusual about Just Be Yourself isn't that it's questionable or infuriating advice, but that it's so meaningless, and in a curiously profound way. First, there's the problem of who you "really" are. (Indeed, "be yourself" is one translation of an old Zen koan, an instruction designed to blow the minds of trainee Buddhist monks because it can't be processed intellectually. The whole point of koans is that they make no rational sense, which makes you wonder if recycling them as glib dating tips is wise.) Second, even if you know who you are, trying to act that way is impossible: as soon as you actively attempt to be genuine, you're being fake by definition. Nor can you leapfrog the paradox by deciding not to try; that's just another form of trying.

Most insidiously, the Just Be Yourselfers presume "who you are" is something fixed - an unchanging personality that potential friends, lovers and employers would instantly love if you could only let it shine. It's true some aspects of personality, according to research, aren't very malleable. But the work of the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck strikes a killer blow to "just being yourself". The notion of personality as fixed, she demonstrates, is a big part of the reason we suffer from stress, anxiety and lack of success.

Many of us, Dweck argues, carry around a "fixed mindset": the implicit belief that our abilities are pre-set. That triggers anxiety because we feel we must live up to our innate abilities. It lulls us into shirking effort because we think we're naturally good at certain things. And it causes us to avoid new challenges, in case they exceed our pre-set talents. By contrast, a "growth mindset" - which can be learned - sees talents as developing, and early failures as feedback showing that progress is being made. You can Just Be Yourself, in a sense, but a "yourself" that's inherently always changing. Dweck's studies show that even just learning about the fixed/growth distinction can transform people's stress levels, and success. A growth mindset turns change into an adventure. They're freed from the burden of having to "just" be themselves.


Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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