By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic Monday, 28 October 2013

Think Again - The perils of being yourself

My foot is swollen and I'm wearing no shoes and a crappy T-shirt. I haven't shaved in 10 days and cannot be arsed to write this column. Fortunately, I can just be myself.

I must pull myself together and pretend that I'm writing about some important matter in a serious and professional way. I must also do it carefully to avoid offending my readers. Most importantly, I have to think hard to make a smart and original point.

Sadly, none of these things is possible if I decide to just be myself - that is, watching daytime TV while cyber-snooping a schoolmate on Facebook.

I remember a great line by Pablo Picasso stating that he spent most of his childhood learning to paint like an adult, but his entire adulthood trying to paint like a child.

The same could be said about human behaviour. As children, we are taught to inhibit our instinctive but immature behavioural tendencies, only to spend much of our adult life trying to act like children again.

As if this needed further reinforcement, one of the most common pieces of career advice is 'just be yourself': it has been used to prepare people for job interviews, business presentations, and even dates.

In line, experts assure us that the main difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the former are able to 'be themselves' whereas the latter are too preoccupied by rules, norms and what others may think of them.

Interviewer: 'Why do you want to work for us?'

Candidate: 'I don't, I'm just desperate for a job and would even consider you.'

Interviewer: 'Do you enjoy working with others?'

Candidate: 'I hate it - most people are stupid and the only advantage of teamwork is to get someone else to do your work.'

Interviewer: 'Do you have any questions?'

Candidate: 'Would I have to deal with you a lot if I worked here?'

Let me get to the point. Behavioural inhibitions are there for a good reason. Lying and faking are not only adaptive, they are also essential ingredients of civilisation.

Since it has taken us many centuries to suppress, repress and disguise our antisocial tendencies, let's just leave it there. Successful people are rarely themselves; they just seem genuine despite proactively managing their reputation.

Tiger Woods is still regretting being himself.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is a professor of business psychology at UCL, VP of innovation at Hogan Assessments and co-founder of metaprofiling.com.

Follow Professor Chamorro-Premuzic on Twitter: @drtcp

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