A lot of advice given to people (and, to some extent, to companies) amounts to “just be yourself”, or “just be comfortable with who you are instead of trying to change”.

This advice is well intentioned, fundamentally, and yet I think it’s not all that helpful.

How can I be something that I have only a superficial understanding of? How can I be myself when I don’t know what “myself” is?

As a person, much of my life has been spent discovering who I am. I still don’t really fully know who I am, though I certainly have a better idea than I did ten years ago. Equally certainly, I have a less good idea than I will in ten years. It’s not just that the ten years will change me (though they will), but also that I’ll have a more useful map of “me”, both the “me” that I am now and the “me” that I will be then.

Similarly for companies, I have argued before that the right thing for companies to do, rather than trying to “be teal”, is to be true to themselves. But no organisation ever gets to total self-awareness. It’s an ongoing process, discovering what the organisation stands for, in ever more depth. Organisations are made of people and, like people, they have bottomless complexity.

Onto that I’ll add that I believe that when we know ourselves, we are naturally less inclined to try be something we know ourselves not to be. So knowing yourself more leads to being yourself more.

On the other hand, striving to be yourself without knowing yourself can lead to stagnation. If I believe I’m being myself, I might be less inclined to accept that my self could use a little improvement. Why are you putting all this pressure on me? I’m just being myself, and I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like doing this challenging, uncomfortable thing you’re suggesting I might do.

So I would like to suggest a revision of the standard advice to people and to organisations. Don’t strive to “be yourself”. Strive to “know yourself”. Being yourself is a consequence of better self-knowledge.