You've heard the childhood admonition often: "Just be yourself." Quite frankly, I used to roll my eyes when I heard that kind of advice, which seemed to be designed only to make me feel better about myself.
Be myself? How is that supposed to actually solve anything?
As usual, age has granted me the wisdom to not be such a dummy. I've been an entrepreneur for a decade, and I'm finally realizing why this advice is literally one of the most valuable things I can share with a new or aspiring entrepreneur -- even if they, too, think it's somewhat useless. That's why I go out of my way now to make sure people really understand what "be yourself" means, and how instrumental it can be to your business.
What do people like Richard Branson, Ellen DeGeneres, Mark Zuckerberg and -- dare I say it -- Donald Trump all have in common? They are unabashedly themselves, and they don't care who likes it or not.
We can debate whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but no one can deny that those individuals have achieved "success," however each defines it.
Your natural self will always come out.
Most people -- myself included -- confuse the cause-and-effect relationship going on here.
I used to think, of course they are comfortable being themselves -- they are rich and famous, so they don't have to pretend anymore. However, that logic is greatly misplaced. Instead, what I've realized is that those individuals, and many more like them, achieved success in the first place because they were unafraid to be themselves.
It's be yourself, first; then achieve success, second.
Whenever I gain the confidence to let my true self shine through, I always end up polarizing the people with whom I'm engaging. Most think this is a bad thing, because most operate on the deep, psychological principle of wanting to be liked.
We all walk around with this innate desire to be liked by everyone. There's no shame in it, and it's certainly a helpful pursuit when we're brought to a new social situation where we need to quickly fit into the group dynamic.
But in business, polarizing the room is actually a good thing. Think about it: If you turn off a potential employee, why would you want that employee to come work with you? If you offend a prospective client at an initial meeting, why would you want to have a long-term relationship with that client, built on a false set of shared values? Over time, our natural selves will always come out, so hiding it is a recipe for disaster later on.
Think about the relationships in your life. The ones built on a true set of shared principles always endure, while the relationships built on false principles eat away at you until someone can't take it anymore.
That's when you finally blow up at a co-worker for leaving her dishes in the sink -- again -- or start talking behind a co-worker's back because he failed to prepare for that key meeting -- again.
And what about that client, with whom you pretended to have great synergy in order to get the business, only to later regret taking the client on because what you promised isn't feasible, profitable or aligned with the vision of your company?
That produces friction and a typically messy end, and it carries an opportunity cost as you waste both time and energy that you could be spending on the right kind of client.
Are you being true to yourself?
What many, very successful people understand is that having an equal amount of lovers and haters is a huge part of the recipe for success. What allows people to scale their lives and achieve remarkable things is an army of supporters who are crazy-passionate about the leader. And no one gets crazy-passionate about anyone unless that person is extraordinarily unique and true to herself.
Leadership, you see, takes a special type of idiosyncratic distinction in the first place. The more we are unique, the better our odds of creating fans who can lift us to our highest goals.
The toughest question to ask is: Are you being true to yourself? If you are, you should be routinely turning away people in your life who don't fully align with your highest aspirations. On the other hand, if you're trying to be everyone's friend, chances are you're not surrounding yourself with the right people you need to truly excel.
So the next time you're confronted with a pivotal situation, remember to be yourself -- and the more remarkable you are, the better. Then call your parents and thank them for what you thought was useless advice.
It turns out, they were smarter than you thought.