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Be True to You! - A Philosopher's Message for the New Year

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Last week, I wrote a Foreword for a friend's new book entitled The Freak Factor. It's a great look at the incredible, outrageous, freakishly wonderful possibility of focusing on being exactly who you are - rather than on what others around you may want you to be - and using your potentially amazing distinctiveness to find your own personal form of success in life.

Of course, the ancient recommendation "Be True to Yourself!" - or, in the words of Russell Simmons, "Do You!" - is not particularly wise advice to give anyone with homicidal tendencies, perversely sadistic thoughts, deeply immoral inclinations, or even just massively irritating and severely antisocial habits. But for the rest of us, it can be liberating and powerful. Reading my friend's excellent book, which I understand these days to be an eccentric quirk of mine, prior to writing a blurb or foreword, reminded me of some important philosophical insights that you might find helpful in the coming year.

We all have dreams. But if we talk about them, some people around us may tell us to "be more realistic." When they give us this advice, what they usually mean is that we should buy into the same assumptions and prejudices about the world that they have absorbed, frequently without sufficient reason. They want us to accept life-as-they-believe-it-to-be, and do more to "fit in" with their current sense of the overall scheme of things. They often think that those of us who dream and hope and believe in the rich abundance of new possibility are deluded and disconnected from reality. But it just may be that an atrophy of their own sensibilities has limited their thinking to a shrunken misrepresentation of reality. Their world may be the emotional size of a postage stamp. But ours need not be that at all.

Being properly realistic in our lives and careers doesn't have to mean conforming to the world's most easily available and ready-made patterns, but rather can center on trusting our own innate instincts to guide us into what's real and right for us as the individuals we are.

The greatest advice echoing down the centuries that helps with this may be the directive, "Know Yourself!" For each of us, this means becoming more self reflectively aware of our beliefs, attitudes, inclinations, aspirations, and habits of feeling. It means getting to know better our passions and joys, along with our personal talents and strengths. But it also requires coming to understand our limitations and weaknesses as well, and considering the possibility that some of our most idiosyncratic and perhaps awkward traits may really be keys to hidden strengths that can unlock the doors of astonishing new adventures. If you're inclined to doubt this at all, consider the recently turbo-charged, spectacular career arc and new found celebrity of Bravo TV's Andy Cohen, who doesn't fit the classic image of a national television talk show host, but who has managed to create around himself a whole new world of TV that fits him perfectly.

Penguins don't flourish on Miami Beach. Nor do alligators in Antarctica. If you go out to a golf course and tee off with a basketball, you can be sure that you won't be getting a hole-in-one. In fact, you'll never sink a single putt. But that's not because there is anything inherently wrong with the basketball. It just deserves a different context where its features work well. To see what I mean, try dribbling a golf ball down court on a fast break and taking a three point shot with it right before the buzzer. You could be using the best golf ball available, but this is clearly the wrong setting for its particular qualities.

A primary source of power in this life is to learn to be yourself in all your glorious you-ness, always seeking to find the right context or setting that suits you, even if you have to create it yourself - which is often a pretty good idea anyway. And in many instances, finding or making a context that's right for you may involve nothing more than taking your own individual approach to a challenge, being unafraid of bringing your uniqueness sensibilities to bear on a problem, or using your distinctive qualities to create a new opportunity. Your procedure and path may be a bit different from many people you admire, or from individuals that others around you admire. But if it leverages your distinctiveness in a positive and powerful way, it's the way to go.

Sometimes you need to alter yourself to fit better into your environment. Much of our culture conspires to teach that and reinforce it on a regular basis. But at other times, you need to alter your environment to fit better with who you are. At all times, being true to yourself should govern your direction and action. This doesn't mean being stubborn and changeless, but rather determinedly authentic and genuine instead. It means learning and growing in a way that's right for you.

Here's the very good news that my friend Dave Rendall and I both want you to take to heart in 2011: You are a magnificent freak of nature. There is no one else in the world who exactly replicates your precise combination of genetics, background, and personal experience. You are one of a kind. There has never been and never will be another you. And that's a Big Deal. If you aren't doing it already, you need to make the most of this astonishing fact in your life and work, moving forward.

This advice stands in a rich, long tradition of insight, starting perhaps with Socrates, getting reinvented later by Seneca, being re-focused along the way by Søren Kierkegaard, and then hitting the shores of America in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Its messages are consistent: Do not cave in to false pressures. Break any artificial chains that hold you back from your best. Don't just conform to the crowd. The ultimate value of aping others can be clearly discerned by a careful consideration of the verb itself. Liberate yourself from average expectations and arbitrary limitations. Be true to you. Embrace the glorious distinctive resources that you have within yourself. And then bring the world the greatest gift you can give the rest of us - simply: YOU, in your own sometimes elegantly idiosyncratic form of excellence.

2011 needs the best real essence of you. So do we all.

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