What does it mean to ‘be yourself’?

Oprah, just being herself

When asked her advice to young girls on Good Morning America, prospective presidential candidate and media mogul Oprah Winfrey replied, “The highest honor on Earth that you will ever have is the honor of being yourself.” She went on to add, “Your only job in the world, people think your job is to get up and go and raise money and take care of your families and stuff, that’s an obligation that you have but your only true job as a human being is to discover why you came, why you are here.”

When I was younger, I used to buy into this line of thinking. “Be yourself.” “Discover yourself.” “Discover why you’re here.” But if you start unpacking these ideas, they’re really just meaningless, and in the end, terrible advice. It’s the kind of thing you say to be utterly inoffensive and avoid taking an actual position or giving useful advice.

What does it mean to ‘be yourself’? Is every individual born with some innate purpose they need to discover? If so, how do you know once you’ve discovered it? Is it always good to be yourself? What if you’re a terrible person? What if the purpose you discover leads you to make bad decisions that negatively impact your life?

She continued. “Every one of us has an internal guidance, a GPS, an intuition, a heart print, a heart song that [speaks] to us. Your only job is to be able to listen and discern when it’s speaking versus your head and your personality speaking, and if you follow that you will be led to the highest good for you, always.” That’s crazy. People make terrible decisions following their hearts instead of their heads all the time.

What if you feel like your “heart song” is telling you to commit criminal acts? There are plenty of people in this world who believe they’re above the law, above the rules, justified to cut corners and do whatever it takes to succeed. There’s plenty of evidence this mentality is rooted in some people’s brain chemistry. Should they embrace these feelings because it’s “being themselves”?

Selfish people and criminals reject the hard and fast rules of society because they believe doing what benefits themselves is more important than following those rules. Of course there are always gray areas, but my point is “being yourself” at the expense of others can have consequences that go way beyond choosing what clothes to wear or how you style your hair.

Think about what Oprah is saying here. Raising money (I’m sure she meant earning) and taking care of your family is an obligation. Your only true job as a human being is to discover why you came, why you are here. Your only true job! So your social obligations, even your obligation to earn a living and support your family (if you have one), are secondary to this journey of self-discovery.

That’s so selfish and crazy. The entire purpose of parenting and school is to shape and mold children into productive adults and productive members of society. Along the way, you discover what your interests are and how you fit into society, but this process is part of growing up. You don’t have “a purpose” to discover: you define what your interests and goals are. This nonsense about “discovering yourself” and “being yourself” only leads to prolonged adolescence, uncertainty, and unhappiness in the long run.

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