The problem with trying to “be your best self”
Have you ever felt demoralised or disappointed in yourself when you tried to follow the advice to “be your best self”? As a leader you may feel it’s your responsibility to be motivated all the time and keep morale high for the team. The problem with this idea is that you’ll almost always fall short of your “best self”. By definition it’s something that’s on the far end of the bell curve. By definition you’re not “your best self” most of the time. By definition you will fail the majority of the time.
Not only will you rarely be your “best self”, but in almost every endeavour you undertake, at some point you will fall lower than your average. So will the people you work with. Whether it’s with projects, communication, deadlines, innovation etc, problems come up, mistakes are mad, things are forgotten. Even if you are remarkable in your character, you will get tired or stressed at some point. And if you think that everything at work is going great, there’s always your personal life that can throw you a curveball: someone you love will get a disease or die or leave you.
You can plan like a boss, get more motivated than Dwayne Johnson on steroids, you can read a billion books to gain the best insights and skills, seek the best advice and be guided every step of the way, you can implement an endless amount of habits and strategies, but you will still fall, you will still have flaws, you will still have days when things don’t work smoothly.
This doesn't mean that you should never try, but know in advance that you, along with everyone else, will fall, and fail, and do so spectacularly. Knowing this can help us be less critical of our inevitable shortcomings and those of others. But it also leads to a new perspective and approach in how we go about work and leadership.
When we "shoot for the stars", we can all too easily ignore our very real flaws and limitations. There's a difference between our potential and our reality here and now. Aiming high can sometimes cause a kind of blindness to reality. Very often we can get hyped up and inspired, but it only lasts a moment. When we come back down, reality hits hard. It’s emotional whiplash. There are some psychologists who are even suggesting that pessimism is just as effective and healthy as optimism.
Always being “on” can also make you less relatable. It can sever the human connection of trust and authenticity that is so important in teams. Because someone who never falters isn’t human. Someone who is always positive and motivated isn’t someone you can honestly communicate with because at some point they will be pretending rather than being truthful, transparent and honest.
Even if you do believe you regularly operate from your “best self”, the reality is there will always be an even better version. You can always be more intelligent, more generous, more resilient etc. Therefore, you never arrive, you’re always striving and falling short. If striving in this way lights you up, go for it, but if you find this unwindable game psychologically, emotionally and/or physically destructive, I believe a more human approach is much more beneficial and lasting.
If we truly recognise that we will screw up in some way, it would then make sense to have some framework to help us work with the inevitable disappointments and problems. When you feel devastated, trying to be “your best self” in that moment can make you feel even worse because it seems so impossible. You’re denying the very realness and messiness of being human (which with the growing amount of things that AI can do, will likely become the most important element in your work).
Know your worst self and dig into it
What if instead of trying so very hard to be your best self, you fully acknowledged your worst characteristics? What if you not only acknowledged your flaws in passing, but made them imperative items to check? You humble yourself by facing your flaws. You cap the downside rather than hoping to ride a shooting star.
Many highly successful people put systems in place to make sure they followed through on their goals. Things that helped prevent the less desirable characteristics from taking over. There seemed to be an understanding and acceptance of their weaknesses in order to develop their greatness.
"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”
For example, let’s say you want to be more focused and you know that social media is a big distraction for you. Rather than striving to be your best self and thinking “I’ll be my best self, and my best self doesn’t get distracted by social media, so I simply won’t go on there”, remove the apps from your phone, put a sticker on your computer reminding you not to waste time on social media, change your password to something that you can’t remember, so that rather than being able to quickly check what’s happening on your feed, you have to check what you password is and painstakingly put in each letter.
Plus, this way you’ll know when you’re about to waste time and it will give you a chance to interrupt the pattern of mindlessly checking social media.
Or let’s say you want to stop rushing to work in the morning because you hit the snooze button on your alarm a million times. Rather than declaring that you will get up after the first alarm, put your phone/alarm clock on the other side of the room so that you are forced to get out of bed (it’s also a good idea to make sure you’re getting enough sleep).
Having an accountability buddy is also very powerful. Let’s say there’s a task you really should do but you always put it off. You can organise with a friend to set a rule that you have to text them once you’ve done it. And if they don’t receive a text by a particular time, they call you to see why you haven’t done it.
"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasure of life”
As this quote by Joseph Campbell suggests, there is something good that can come from going into the abyss, the darkness, the imperfection, the uncertainty, the problem. By focusing on our flaws and where we fall short (rather than striving to be a better version of ourselves) we can ironically make a lot more progress. If we go into the abyss and confront the things we don’t want to admit about ourselves, and we go in with the right tools, we will very often find greater strength, resilience and resolve in the process.
A brief case study
I have been given permission to share the following though I’ve altered a few of the details to keep anonymity:
I worked with a client who was a creative type. Creativity was a significant part of his life not just professionally but also personally. However he hadn't felt truly inspired or produced any good work for a number of months and didn't really know why. He kept trying to undertake artistic endeavours, but there wasn't the same fire and passion he had once felt.
As I asked him questions I discovered he was living with a lot of uncertainty and fear in his life. In fact most things in his life caused him some level of stress, worry, fear or worthlessness. Using particular methods, we were able to essentially release this stress from his mind and body.
We worked through some fears he had around his financial situation, fears that “someone better wouldn’t have”. We also worked through some guilt that he was stressed about money, yet there were people living on the streets in third world countries with far less. We released worries of what the future might hold. We worked through resentments towards people he hadn’t spoken to in years. It felt petty to him but it was having a large negative effect on his creativity.
He moved through these things that “shouldn't be a problem” that “aren’t real problems” that “other people easily deal with” using some simple processes over a number of sessions.
What naturally sprung up afterwards was his inspiration and creativity.
In other words, rather than getting him to think bigger, or try to get motivated, we completely acknowledged and then released the legitimate and very real things that were in his way. He got to fully face the problems, the ugly things he hadn’t wanted to fully admit because (as with most of us) he wanted to think he was “better than that”, he was trying to be his “best self”.
After doing this work he had more ideas. He didn’t try to come up with them, they just came to him. He said his ideas were better and richer (after having gone into the “abyss”). He felt more in flow rather than grinding it out with pure discipline.
This shows the power of acknowledging your worst self. If we had simply tried to increase his motivation, the effects may have been quite dismal (or even made things worse). The problem wasn’t that he wasn’t motivated, it was that he was dealing with very stressful situations that were getting in the way of his natural flow.
Going into the abyss
Going into the abyss is not a clear cut, simple universally applicable approach. But here are some questions that might help you:
Where do you not want to look? This is very often where you’ll find some true gems.
What is your least favourite character trait in yourself?
What's your least favourite character trait in others? Is this something that you dislike in yourself but try to ignore the fact that it’s there?
What have other people said are your flaws? If the people who know you were to say the worst things about you, what would they be?
Is there anything that you pretend to be completely OK with, but in reality it's a problem for you?
Is there anything that you're afraid someone will "find out" about you?
Once you’ve identified something, you can use an external strategy, or you can also work through the internal stuff. A method known as "Tapping" can help you through these ugly things to set you free. I also use other methods (that I can’t share here for legal reasons) when working with clients that are better suited for some people and some situations. Not all the methods I use require you to face your demons head on. It’s possible to create change without feeling the pain.
So next time you try to be your best self, consider a different approach before moving forward.
Reflections on the art of living: a Joseph Campbell companion collected by Diane K Osbon
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkina
Photo by Shashank Shekhar on Unsplash