It’s an often asked question: if you could go back in time and tell your younger self what you know now, what would you say? For me, that’s a question I can answer immediately. The problem is that I am so weary of repeatedly encountering the same conditions, I am so very tired of experiencing the emotions that go along with it, and so I find this post very difficult to write. To some extent, it’s an exercise in reliving the pain anew. It’s a bit like extracting teeth.
The thing I would tell my younger self would be that it was ok to be the person I am. The pressure to fit in, to do what was expected, to bend in order to show the world a more acceptable, palatable, unchallenging, uncontroversial, likeable version of me, was a poison that does its destructive work slowly, but inexorably. Suppressing your inner self, so that other people can deal with you, employ you, form relationships with you, feel unthreatened by your ideas, accomplishments and abilities, not have to rethink their prejudices, assumptions and articles of faith, remain comfortable in their own skins and not feel bad about themselves whenever they are around you, is, quite simply, living a lie.
Being a chameleon, to please others, at the expense of your authentic self, is a price not worth paying, for the flimsy veneer of “fitting in”. You know, in your heart, that you don’t, even when it appears that you do. Nobody should ever feel shamed into suppressing what they are, what they value and what makes them happy, for the convenience of judgemental bystanders, no matter how key they seem to be to your future and prospects.
The fear of being “found out”, forcibly “outed” as who you really are, exposing what you really think and having their acceptance and assistance withdrawn as a result is not a sword of Damocles that you should have to live under, either. But live under it I often have.
There are people that study shame as an academic line of enquiry, these days. One of the leading researchers into shame is Brené Brown. She found that a staggering 85% of people she researched had incidences in their childhood where someone shamed them, for their creativity or being the person they were and it stopped them in their pursuits. A full 50% of the 85% abandoned some creative pursuit because their work or their dream to be good at a creative skill was scorned and shamed. Worse still, she found that people who had been shamed and so stopped, didn’t reconnect with important parts of themselves, represented by the thing that was shamed, until they were well into their fifties.
I’ll just let that sink in, for a moment. The vast majority of people gave up a precious expression of their inner self in childhood; almost 43% of people researched gave up an artistic or creative pursuit, because they were made to feel shame for not conforming. Furthermore, they did not recover from the shame for around five decades – for many, the very best years of their lives, when they might have been most productive, in their pursuit. If your jaw is not on the floor, at this point, then you haven’t been paying attention. This statistic represents a staggering loss of human potential and a massive wellspring of unhappiness, lack of fulfilment, frustration and regret. What do you suppose the net effect and toll on a person of that level of discouragement accumulates into? What does it do to a human organism?
My own story is probably typical of many people’s experience, if the statistics are to be believed. There is nothing special about my experience and it has probably been repeated, in different guises, countless times, by millions of people. The only aspect of my experience that makes it personal, of course, is that it happened to me, in my life and I had to live with it. I have to live with it still.
As I write this, I am aware that I feel that even talking about my experience is somewhat insufferable and self-indulgent. Bearing witness to my own diversion away from authenticity, as a younger person, feels like a “poor me” tale, so something I need to self-censor and, once again, something I have to suppress in order to remain acceptable and un-rejectable, thereby avoiding the imagined backlash. Funny, isn’t it? No, not really.
When my younger brother, whom I love dearly, was barely two and I was scarcely older, he was gravely ill. We almost lost him. Understandably, my parents, the most attentive and loving parents you could wish for, had to focus on their ailing child. Consequently, I had to stand aside at a time of my life when I needed a lot of love, reassurance and protection too. I was a small boy confused by the fact that my little brother was most evidently mortal and in all probability, I realised, so was I. Instead of expressing that insecurity and worry, though, I felt I had to be brave, selfless and grown up, instead of just a little boy.
It was hard to do, as such an immature human being, yet I have a vivid memory of having to hold all of that fear in and having to act in ways that meant I would be no trouble for my parents, not encroach on their worry about my brother and not express my own fear that I might lose my lovely sibling or, indeed, that I might die too. It was the first time I can remember having to be somebody other than who I really was, to keep the peace and to keep others from having to be concerned about me too. There’s no blame or reproach to be apportioned, of course. What else could anybody have done, under the circumstances, after all? Even still, it was the beginning of that feeling that I had to be somebody else, for normality to be maintained.
Part of that feeling translated into a strong desire to be a well-behaved child, at school. I didn’t want to cause any trouble. I just wanted to do what was expected of me, as best I could. It turned out that I was a quick learner, but half of that was only because I tried very hard to pay attention to my teachers and do what they asked of me, without being told twice. There was no secret to it. Pretty soon, I was seen as the bright kid and as such, somewhat isolated from my peers, who sometimes resented the apparent ease with which I earned good grades and the fact that I seemed to grasp things I was taught the first time, without the repetitive rote learning that typified schooling of that era. They didn’t know the half of it. I worked very hard, as a child, just to meet everybody’s expectations of me, or more correctly, the expectations that I perceived were placed upon me. I just wanted to be thought of as a good kid.
Deep down, though, I really wanted to be playing. It’s what I daydreamed about, in the periods of time I eked out, between my intense efforts to finish the work set for me as quickly as I could, in order to make more time for daydreaming. Maybe lots of kids feel that way, at school.
What is rewarded is reinforced. The more I behaved as I thought others wanted me to, the more the praise and acceptance flowed in. Nobody forced me to behave in ways that were acceptable to others, or even told me to, but when I did, they made sure I got the message that this was “good”.
An additional obstacle for a young boy, not too confident about being who he was and being shaped by the expectations of others, to bend to their image of him, was the fact of my heritage. I am descended from Russian stock, which during the height of the Cold War, opened one up to all sorts of unfounded, largely bigoted and hyperbolic, hysterical charges of being a secret Communist. My parents, having seen at firsthand what can happen when you are too open about your allegiances or heritage, encouraged us to never speak about our ancestors and their former life, before they settled as immigrants. It was seldom discussed and we spoke English only, at home. They were blameless, being children when they emigrated, as were their parents and not Communists at all (in fact, they had suffered substantially at the hands of the Communists), but saying one was Russian, in Cold War Australia, was an open invitation to be tarred with that odious brush.
Although I was born in the country of my childhood, I could never openly acknowledge where my parents were from. It had to remain a dark secret. We were ashamed. It wasn’t that we had anything to be ashamed of, but it was clear that, when I was a child, I was an outsider and a second class citizen in my own country of birth. The feeling was unshakeable. There was tremendous pressure to be more Australian than the Australians (themselves actually immigrants, in one way or another). Whereas other kids openly spoke about their British heritage and British history was taught in the schools, my heritage and the rich and varied history of my parents’ countries was never even mentioned. We were a family of ordinary people, displaced by war, set down in reactionary, conservative, thoroughly brainwashed and propagandised Australia. They all feared reds under the bed, but we always slept on top of our beds and we weren’t red.
Expectations mounted. The more you shape yourself to please others; the more they want you to go a little further and be that little bit more like what they expect you to be. I was a bit of an over achiever, at high school and that became what was expected of me. I wasn’t permitted to struggle with or fail at anything. I had to be good at everything. Nobody, then or since, acknowledged how hard and pressured maintaining that standard is. I made it look easy, but it wasn’t.
What I wanted to be was a musician. I wanted to make music, play my guitar and record, using a studio like a musical instrument, like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons and Ultravox had. This was the life I wanted to live. I wanted to be a full time music producer. However, being a reliable, steady, serious, academically able student and a rising young professional was the path I was guided toward. It’s not a bad path and it has had its enjoyable episodes. I don’t contest that. However, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Whenever I broached my choice, I was dissuaded from becoming an out of control, young rock star that played lairy guitars too loud. That, I was told in no uncertain terms, was the road to ruin, but it was the road I wanted to travel. That didn’t seem to matter.
When you start on your career path, you gradually, almost imperceptibly, accumulate obligations of one sort or another, as the years go by and pretty soon, you find yourself having to work too hard, in a so called real job, which was supposed to have real prospects, just to meet your commitments, instead of spending any time at all, playing music. That would be fine, if the prospects were delivered, but all too frequently, my steady jobs ended in company failures, takeovers, buyouts, bankruptcies and redundancy. These “steady jobs” proved to be as shaky, unreliable and unstable as being a musician was. There I was, being somebody else, in order to receive the rewards I was assured would come, for playing the part, yet I was constantly short changed and let down. I traded my soul for a handful of “magic beans”. It felt like a lottery.
As a young man, I had many arguments with girlfriends, potential and other. Some wanted to change me from being a musician into something else (heaven knows what – I didn’t stick around to find out). Another, who was a musician and writer, wanted to be a professional instead (perhaps for the same pressured reasons I was being steered down that path). Rather than seeing me as a comrade in arms, or as an inspiring and encouraging collaborator in an artistic life together, she saw me as a rival, worthy only of jealousy and bitter envy.
Being on the receiving end of the coldness and unkindness that accompanies such a comprehensive rejection as this, when what you had put forward, as a prospectus for a life together was your dearest wish to follow your artistic leanings and hers, in co-conspiratorial tandem, comes as a dreadful, crushing blow, which knocks all the self confidence out of you. When somebody you really fancy throws your dreams back in your face and punishes you for sharing them, that is just another way of reinforcing the idea that being who you really are is wholly unacceptable and that being somebody else is the only viable course of action open to you. It had long lasting effects. Only in my mid to late twenties did I finally get lucky and find a wife that has been the most wonderful and supportive partner in our sometimes out-there endeavours together.
In my working life, I tried as hard as I could to be the model employee, as was expected of me. Time and again, though, I encountered things in business that were less than good. Saying so is never welcome, but conscience does not permit acquiescence. As the messenger, I was shot as often as believed. You weren’t supposed to be a boat shaker and for the most part, I had to avoid shaking boats, while keeping my own integrity intact. It was not a happy balancing act.
I’ve written previously about professional jealousy and I have encountered more than my fair share of that, as others, instead of seeing my talents as adding to the collective good, instead saw me as a problem to be eliminated. In everything I do, I consciously try to do it to the best of my ability. People don’t like it when your efforts at self improvement pay off, eventually and your abilities risk outshining their own. Instead of turning around and making better art, themselves, they get all Machiavellian about it and start plotting your ignominious downfall. All this behaviour serves only to reinforce the notion that it is far too dangerous to be who you are and to do what you do, as well as you can. You have to be somebody altogether more ordinary, average, orthodox and not quite so outstanding. They call this “fitting in”.
The way I am wired, I have an ability to extrapolate from early trends and predict future opportunities with uncanny accuracy. It’s no big deal to me and I have been proven right, after the fact, so many times, that I am confident the method works. All you have to do is be sensitive and aware enough of movements in the populace toward one idea or another and you can be months or years ahead of your more conservative competitors. Unfortunately, most of the companies one can work for are populated by these same conservative people. People like me comprise only about six percent of the population, I am told.
Conservative thinkers, who deliberately blind themselves to and steadfastly ignore change, rather than sensitively noticing significant changes as they’re beginning, don’t even think it’s possible to reliably predict future technology or other trends, let alone accept the whole business as being methodical, reliable and easy. They can’t do it and so conclude that nobody else can. The reason they can’t do it because of their attitude to change. They hate it and wish it wouldn’t happen. That’s why they can never see it, until it’s too late. They’re doing anything they possibly can to avoid having to notice change. Yet again, a natural proclivity I have to just be one of the first to be aware of change puts me in conflict with often powerful people, in hierarchies I work within, who do their level best to pretend change never happens.
Again, I have to be somebody else to have an easier life. If I am who I am, I pay for it in grief. I can’t draw attention to disruptive changes early enough to take appropriate action, when I work with people whose basic assumption is that all change is incremental in nature. They’re wrong, but I have to accommodate them, because they wish change to be incremental, even though most responses to change do not fail from being attempted too early, but rather they fail because the response to change is too late.
The world of painting is just as funny. I paint in my own distinctive way. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I am constantly amazed by the reactions I get. What does it matter to anybody else how I paint, yet I am constantly getting barbed comments and unfavourable comparisons to “proper” painters? The message is loud and clear. Paint in a more orthodox style, with ordinary colours and forms, or your art won’t be acceptable and neither will you be, as a painter. The pressure to fit in, even as an artist, is immense. Be the artist you’re not. That’s the message.
I’ve even encountered this pressure to be somebody else in music. My guitar playing has its own style and earlier in my guitar playing career, I was constantly encouraged to be more like Tony Mottola. Hardly anybody remembers him as a guitar player and while he was an undoubtedly fine player, why did I have to sound like him? I couldn’t, I didn’t want to and I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to play so that I sound like me. It made no sense to me to half-heartedly ape somebody that could do that particular style of playing better than anybody else alive (sadly, he’s dead now). This, however, is the artistic advice that young musicians are so often given. Be somebody else. Don’t be you. People might not like you and they already like somebody else, so be somebody else. It’s crazy!
(For those interested, here is some Tony Mottola guitar playing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Vw8gfcaaj0 I don’t play like this at all.)
Another thing that comes from simply noticing (“You can observe a lot by just watching” – Yogi Berra) is that I have a talent for seeing the connections most people miss (whether they miss them accidentally, deliberately or ignorantly). If you can entertain pure possibilities, then it’s amazing how often your intuition connects seemingly unrelated things and you suddenly have a lucid picture of what’s really going on, which has the satisfying ring of truth, instead of an inexplicable, mystifying, seemingly chaotic one. However, when you report those connections to those that cannot (or will not) see them, be prepared for accusations, slander, character assassination and all manner of abuse. In every case, your peers will tell you that you are wrong to see such connections, that you ought not see them, that your observations and intuitions are suspect and that showing the connections you perceive, to people that haven’t seen them, is reprehensible in the extreme.
People are trained to accept fear, uncertainty and doubt as representing normality, but it’s a mistake to be that person. You are, presumably, supposed to not notice or to keep quiet about it, if you do see things more clearly, according to their mental model of the universe. The pressure to be a different person, who doesn’t see obvious connections, hiding in plain sight, is immeasurable. Because other people can’t do it (because they choose not to notice), they assert that nobody can do it, and hence, by induction, you must be a liar, if you claim you can. Society tells you that it’s not ok to be the person you are.
These days, talking about the places I have worked, the people I have worked with, the things I have accomplished and the amazing luck I have had in my career has become almost risible. Nobody believes that I could have done all that. It’s almost embarrassing to bring it up. Far easier to pretend it never happened or to downplay it all. In one more significant way, I am invited to modify my own personal history for the comfort of others, who otherwise find it all very difficult to believe. I have to be somebody else.
I’ve also been told, point blank, that polymaths don’t exist or cannot be placed in gainful employment. The view is that it is impossible for any single human being to be professionally competent at more than one thing and still be any good. I’ve heard that. As my defence to the contrary, I submit an example of a thorough-going polymath in Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, airline pilot, doctor of music, writer, broadcaster, internationally competitive fencer, entrepreneur, father and cancer survivor. http://moreintelligentlife.com/blog/ed-cumming/hunting-modern-polymaths He’s not the only one, as the article will attest, yet the general population denies the existence of the modern polymath, by and large. All polymaths experience excessive pressure to be somebody else, their whole lives. As accomplished as they are, they’re told that they’re frauds and that it is not ok to be the person they are. They must be somebody else.
A note came home from school about our young son, one day, strongly suggesting that we should, as responsible parents, address his persistent lying. Apparently, they claimed, he had been making up tall tales and telling the other children fanciful stories about his family and background. When we went to the school to see what the problem was, we were told that he had told his peers that his grandmother had grown up in a castle, that his mother had worked in a formula one team, that his father had spent time working in Hollywood and had met many rock stars, that he was half Australian, that his grandfather spoke five languages, that his great grandfather was a bishop, who had advised the queen on the naming of her children, that an ancestor, in Russia, had been an opera singer and that his aunty lived in America and interviewed movie stars for a living. They were most concerned that our son was so convincing in his lying, that he almost believed it himself. Naturally, they had chastised him for his tall tales and even punished him for not desisting in telling his wildly improbable stories. The problem was that every word was true. Our son had not been lying, he had been telling his truth, as it was told to him, in our family circle. His teachers had concluded that such a history had to be fictitious, even when it was wholly factual. Here was a whole organisation, authority figures, telling my son that it was not ok to be the person he really was. In fact, they punished him for it.
The insidious danger that goes along with being rejected for being who you are is that it lets you off the hook. You don’t have to try very hard to improve yourself, as the person you really are, when everybody else tells you that your vision of yourself either doesn’t exist or shouldn’t exist. When they tell you to be somebody else, it stops you trying to improve upon who you actually are. Falling into that trap is very unfortunate, but so easy to do. In fact, what you should be doing, is trying to find a place to be where people accept you for what you are, as you are. The more outstanding, unusual or unorthodox you are, though, the harder it is to find a tribe similar to yourself. The numbers thin out. It is exceedingly difficult to only work with other polymaths or live in a place where your son’s “tall tales” are accepted as truth, because that’s what they are.
I once worked for a man who is quoted as saying you have to be willing to be misunderstood, if you’re going to innovate. While there is some truth to that, I’ve found that the misunderstanding goes way beyond a joke, spilling over into malicious, wilful ignorance. People refuse to understand you. They’d rather you made yourself more understandable to them, by being less of what you are and more of what they are. The man I worked for, or his organisation, didn’t understand me. I was willing to innovate, on his behalf, willing to be misunderstood, but not willing to be singled out and given ridiculously odious management tasks, which would hurt direct reports, by people that saw me as a professional rival and threat.
I find that the pressure to keep my mouth shut and pretend that certain achievements never existed is still intense, for me, even today. Admittedly, I live in a county with a higher than average proportion of conservative thinkers than average, which doesn’t help at all. However, I’ve never yet located a place where I could guarantee acceptance of who I am, what I think and what I can do. I’ve almost abandoned the idea.
An ironic side effect of suppressing who you really are, to please others, is that it spurs you on to want to overachieve at what they expect you to be, so that people will, at last, be pleased with you, for a change. Overachieving often extracts a terrible price. It’s hard to do and the self-imposed pressure can break you physically and emotionally. At the end of the day, if you excel at being precisely who they all want you to be, they hate you for it anyway, because you are outshining them again, but this time at what you were told to be. Meanwhile, you hate yourself more for betraying your own true nature so spectacularly. It’s not a winning strategy.
After decades of struggle against the pressure to be somebody else, I’ve finally come to realise that you have no choice but to be who you really are and to do what makes you happiest. The world will just have to adjust to accommodate you. Often, it does not. There are legions of high achievers, doing exactly what they wanted to do, who were commercially inconvenient and who, therefore, met tragic ends. Nicola Tesla, Edwin Armstrong and Rudolph Diesel spring to mind (you should research and read their life stories). Even so, what other course of action is actually open to you? If you try to be who you’re not, you can’t. You can only be who you are. Otherwise, your life is like being in a cover band, playing other people’s songs and never playing your own material. You might get good at it, but you’ll never feel good about it.
Despite the slings and arrows, you should not hide your light under a bushel, as the saying goes. Instead, you should shine as brightly as you are able. Shine on.
A brilliant life coach I worked with, to untangle the mess of my own artistic identity, is the incomparable Janet Whitehead. http://www.musingsandmud.com/home.html Her view is that reconnecting with our authentic selves is critically important. In fact, she tells her granddaughters and others that she does what she does, so that it doesn’t take until a person is 50 to reconnect with a huge part of themselves. She’s right. It’s important not to lose that connection with who you really are, no matter what others want you to be. The assault starts at a very young age, as I hope my testament will demonstrate, but you have to stand your ground, as soon as you realise what is being done to you. You don’t have to be the person other people want you to be. Being the person you are is ok.
Your passions are a pretty reliable guide to your place and purpose in the world. Trust in those feelings and intuitions. They are telling you about yourself and what you care about most. They’re signposts to what you stand for. As such, they’re an important part of you.
As Seth Godin said, it’s time we got out of this thing of fitting in and got into being the one that stands out. Outstanding!
Never hide your light.