You Do You: A Life Philosophy
Conformity is for Conformists
I am the most internally non-confirming, outwardly conforming person you might ever meet.
I blame my brothers. Tim (11 years older than me) and Jim (15 years older than me) were both hippies. In fact, Jim’s nickname was “Hippie Jim” well into his 30s. He was luck in the Vietnam draft, but many of their friends were not. Our hometown is a small city in the middle of Michigan, and a bastion of conservatism. My brothers and their friends were visible members of the counterculture. Given the long hair and other elements of the Age of Aquarius set was taken by my brothers, I had to distinguish myself at least outwardly in other ways.
In junior high I wanted to be a writer. Brother Jim and our older sister Susan were both writers. Brother Tim and our Dad were outgoing, masterful story tellers. I was shy, introverted, and loved to read. It was natural for me to gravitate to writing. Our parents were not ones to provide much advice. Our Mother was good at voicing her displeasure in a variety of passive aggressive manners, but seldom was she direct in her communication. One night we had stopped at the local convenience store, and someone must have asked me what I wanted to do. When I said writer, my mom suggested that something that made money would be better like lawyer. That idea stuck into my first semester of college when I was seduced by a life in the academy.
In high school, I was on the debate team along with public speaking, model UN, and theater. For debate, I wore a jacket and tie. I owned a three-piece suit while still in high school. One day my cousin Lisa was visiting and asked if the briefcase that was out was my Dad’s. No, that’s mine. She compared me to Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox’s character on Family Ties). The problem with this comparison was that Alex was a Republican, much to the frustration of his recovering hippy parents. I was a member the Young Democrats, much to the frustration of my Republican parents, I am sure.
A Gift from My Parents
The greatest gift (besides life itself) that my parents gave me (and my siblings) was the philosophy of “you do you.” I don’t know if they meant to do this. Dad was 17 when he joined the navy in World War II and did not talk about his experiences. Mom had a troubled childhood and young adulthood, growing up poor and without a father in the Depression. I wonder if they were so distracted by their own stuff that they didn’t think too much about the kids. Whether by intent or neglect, though, the gift was the same. There was never pressure on me to do well in school or what activities to participate in. I figured it out for myself, and I pushed myself because of my own goals.
When I was interested in Communism (at the height of the Cold War), my sister Carol took me over spring break to the Community Party office in Chicago. How many high school students had their own copy of the Communist Manifesto? Of those, how many wore Oxford button down shirts and boat shoes? Carol was an officer in the Salvation Army. Ministry and missionary work were part of her passion. Our oldest sister Susan wrote about the ghost who saved her life as a child and worked for a time as a fortune teller and psychic. She influenced Hippie Jim who constructed astrology charts and studied metaphysics. Tim just wanted to have a good time, not bother people, and not be bothered himself.
One of the core elements I have learned about myself is that I am analytical. The first lie I told my first wife was that I don’t over analyze everything. Over thirty years later, I wear my analytical mind as a badge. It helps that I have learned how to use that ability for a lucrative career. Still, it took me a long time of self-analysis to understand that I am wired to look at the world and analyze it…to break it down into its parts while simultaneously looking for the patterns and big picture that will make it all make sense. Part of embracing the “you do you” philosophy is first owning “me be me.” This means owning who you are as an individual and being comfortable in your own skin. It does not mean rejecting the values and expectations of your family but choosing to keep those that align with your own internal values.
My parents never asked us “if someone jumped off a building, would we,” because all six of us were fierce individualists that were not going to do anything we did not want to do. I could see my brother Tim jumping off a building. Not because others were, but because it might look fun. Tim was smarter than me in raw brain power. He was also impulsive where I was analytical. He was open and outgoing where I was quiet and shy. He was the life of the party, and I was the observer of the party. Growing up, I did not do drugs, and when I drank, I was careful to not drink to excess. I wanted to stay in control. Tim did not recognize control. He died in an accident when I was 19 and he was 30. I have lived more years since he has been gone than he lived his whole life. The hole inside of me that appeared when he left will always be with me. I just have learned over the years to live with that space. Looking back on it, I should have seen someone back then. Losing him was simply the last in a series of bad things that happened to me while in college. I was in a dark place there for a time. Part of “me being me” is accepting the painful part, the shadows within.
One of the philosophies that runs counter to “you do you” is “fear of missing out” (FOMO). FOMO drives the fear that somewhere, someone is having an experience that you are missing out on. I remember a cross-country trip with my parents and my stepfather’s mother who was in her 80s at the time. She would defend her claim to shotgun by saying “she didn’t want to miss anything,” and then would promptly fall asleep. Whenever I hear “FOMO,” I think about her and that trip. Ironic that it is usually associated with millennials and youngers.
The reality is that it is impossible to not miss out on something. I am not going to pitch the idea of be happy with what you have. For my 39th birthday, my co-workers gave me the best card. It had a cartoon of the Dali Lama on it saying for my birthday they got the ideal gift, nothing. Some people can be comfortable in that space. They are lucky and gifted, but every gift has a shadow.
When you accept what you have, you do not have the motivation to change it. I met Rosa Parks in high school. If she had been stoic and accepting, she would have given up her seat on the bus. By refusing, and forcing the inherent sins of racism, she did not simply earn the right to sit down on the bus, she contributed to a larger movement to create many more opportunities for women (and men) of color. Rosa Parks was a hero. Part of who she was at her core was someone willing to stand up for what she knew was right despite the consequences. Not every is a Rosa Parks. Not everyone needs to be. You do you, and let Rosa do Rosa.
The concept of Internet Influencers is based on refuting a “you do you” philosophy. The influencer is saying “You be me,” and to be like me you should use this product that someone is paying me to promote to you. They are part of a prevailing trend in marketing to feed off your fears of not being good enough, of missing something in your life, that a product or service can provide. Don’t get me wrong. I like products and services. There are brands that I support. I am writing this wearing a Schitt’s Creek t-shirt. The key is when these things fit and reflect who you are rather than trying to conform to some idea.
I had two friends in high school and college that were huge influences on my musical tastes. One of the artists that they introduced me to was Peter Gabriel. My brother Tim also liked Peter, and we played a mix tape he had created of Peter’s music as his funeral. After Peter became popular and was on frequent play on MTV (when they played music videos), one of my friends stopped listening to Peter as my friend felt that he had lost his cool being too popular. I never understood this. I like what I like because I like it. If an artist becomes successful, that should not mean we stop liking their music. Sometimes artist change. They try new things, or maybe they try to be more commercial. Life does not demand loyalty without question. Not in musical tastes and not in friends. You do you, and me be me.
There was a time when I was into Nine Inch Nails. After a couple of years, though, I found that my tastes had changed. I no longer enjoyed the hard industrial sounds. It was part of my changing. In a similar fashion, my political views changed over time. My analysis of communism in my youth led me to the conclusion it was a failed concept. In time, I lost faith and interest in the Democratic Party. I worked too closely with politicians, and I objected to policy based on ideology and not policy based on evidence. I do not resent the firebrands on the right or left who can only see through the lens of their beliefs. That is them doing them. The line that cannot be crossed for me is when their ideology does not leave room for others to have different views. When your ideas and actions limit others from “you do you,” then I have a problem.
I did theater in high school (and some after college.) I think that influenced much of my world view. I see cloths and accessories as a costume. We wear thigs to communicate and send a message. Sometimes these are not who we are, but the part we are playing. I think that is fine, as long as we do not lose track of who we are and why we are playing a part. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had a short story about this, “Who am I this time?” An actor in a small-town community theater was boring and uninteresting in real life, but in a play, he became whatever character he was playing. I remember my brother Tim telling me about that story long before I read it.
Many cultures around the world are considered to be collectivist versus individualist. The United States is a very individualist culture, and at first glance, “you be you” sounds like a very individualist idea. It puts the focus on the needs of the individual and individual identity. That narrow perspective misses though that when some people put the needs of family, clan, or other group first, they are recognizing that part of who they are is someone who focuses on the collective needs over individual. The challenge is when someone who is really individualistic attempts to pass in a collectivist culture. If the collectivist culture emphasizes conformity and fitting in, it can create a shadow counter force. Conformity can lead to less innovation and new thinking. Deferral to hierarchy can lead to fascism and compliance at the expense of liberty and freedom.
Your Definition of Success Depends on You
Success is about achieving your goals. Success begins with understanding what your goals are. It requires you to know yourself and your identity. It helps to know the parts of your life that you do for you and the parts that you do for others. When we know who we are and what we want, we can begin to achieve success.
If we do not know where we are going, any path will take us there.
Alice in Wonderland
The thing is, that knowledge can only be earned through experience. For four years I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and then I realized that it wasn’t me. Even once I knew I wanted to be a professor, it took me a few years to get there, and I almost went a different path. We can think we know, and then we can learn we don’t. I thought making my first marriage work was important, until I realized that we were two people going in different directions. She figured this out first which is why she left, and I have not seen her since I left the house the morning she made her escape.
I spend 24 hours, 7 days a week with myself. That is a universal human condition. I like to interact with people who are different than me, who have different stories, experiences and perspectives because they have the most to teach me. At the same time, life is about finding your own path, your own definition of success, and ultimately you being you and being good with that.