I used to have a quote written on my whiteboard at work. It reminded me of something that I consider really important. I recently erased it because too many people did not immediately understand it and I don’t feel like taking time to explain things when I need to be getting my job done. It it, however, not a quote that I’ll ever remove from my heart, my mind, or my system of personal ethics. The quote is from Dr. Nathaniel Branden, during a talk on the foundations of self-acceptance. It says:

“It’s not about what THEY think; it’s about what YOU know”.

To me, that sentence seems very straightforward. Yet, more than one person thought that what it meant was that I don’t care about what other people think of me. Just to be really clear, that is NOT what it means. For better or for worse, the first impression that one projects to another is the one that lasts. If you want to survive in a world where you work for someone else, where people have specific expectations, and where you represent a team, the impression you make on others matters. I KNOW THAT.

But, there is a big difference between presenting ones self in a particular external form and having an internal sense of self-efficacy and self-acceptance. There is nothing wrong with liking who you are and believing that you have as much right to live and anyone else. The Branden quotation is not about external presentation, it is about internal definition. It is not about ignoring what others think; it is about not letting others be the primary criteria by which you define yourself.

That is why I want to live by the rule that Branden’s statement defines. I won’t stop liking opera just because my friends don’t like it. I won’t stop writing poetry just because I’m a product manager not a poet. I won’t stop using humor as my way of balancing my stress just because someone doesn’t think I’m adequately stoic. I won’t stop valuing personal relationships with coworkers just because it’s not the “executive” thing to do. I won’t stop acting like the relatively cool guy that I think I am just because an alternate way of behaving might someday get me the title of Vice President.

What I WILL do, it to accept the things I like about myself and to live consistent with my values, even if I’m somewhat atypical.

You know why?

Because I have as much right to my happiness as anyone else and I’m not going to stop being me just to be someone who other people want me to be.

It is common these days to speak of community and teamwork with the phrase “It takes a village”. Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t really dispute that. We need to work together and we need to form communities because the world is an extremely complex place. I’m really good at some things and not as good as others. Yet, to be optimally successful in my endeavors I need some of each. If I contribute my strongest skills and ask to use someone else’s strongest skills in return, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts like any synergistic relationship. I recognize that I have a need of that synergy. But the next question comes when thinking about where the “strongest skills” will be developed.

For me, the answer comes in striving to be the best I can be. This does not just mean being the best “team player”. It means being the “best”, period. It all comes down to personal achievement. Not group achievement, not community achievement, not team achievement. PERSONAL achievement. Community and team are important concepts. But there is nothing wrong with individual achievement too. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say that it is individual striving that drives a desire for individual responsibility; taking individual responsibility that contributes to individual success; and individual success that provides these “strongest skills” that one contributes to the team or community. So, without individual accomplishments, there is nothing to contribute to a team or community. I know this “bucks the trend” but, although collaboration is essential to group success, there IS an “I in team”.

Let’s get back to Nathaniel’s quotation:

“It’s not about what THEY think; it’s about what YOU know”.

Why is this so important?

To be the best that one can be, and hence the best contributor that one can be, one must realize that he or she is both capable of succeeding and worthy of it. Knowing this about yourself is what makes you willing to accept responsibility. It is what make it possible for someone to learn from mistakes instead of be deflated by them. It is what gives you confidence that you can learn the high-value skills that make you a valuable contributor. It does not mean the team is unimportant or that your bosses perception is unimportant, or that your family or other communal entity is unimportant – unquestionably they are. But the way to become the best possible contributor to those aggregated structures is to recognize that you, yourself, are important too.

So, I live by the Branden quote, just as I live by a desire to achieve unconditional integrity and self-responsibility, because the only way to be my best is to know that I have that capacity. One can not, I will not, let anyone take that knowledge away from me. Irrespective of what THEY think, so long as I know my capacity, everyone is better off. Believing in yourself is crucial to living a fulfilled life. If others believe in you as well, rock on! But it has to start with you and you have to be strong enough that no one else can screw it up for you.

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