Be Yourself! The worst advice you can get.

Being yourself–how has that worked for you so far? If you are completely satisfied and happy with yourself and happen to be your best self, then you are golden and don’t need to read any further. Congratulations, you are great. However, if you’re not (like most people out there including myself) then keep reading to learn why at times, especially at those critical life-changing moments, you should not be yourself but instead take a chance to be someone new. Here is a personal example of such a life-changing moment.

When I arrived in the U.S., I was placed in the 11th grade of high school. I barely spoke any English and had to work really hard to get by in the classes that depended heavily on language skills. Math, chemistry and science were manageable. But English, history, economics were a nightmare. Because I had only two years to complete my entire course work to graduate, not only did I need to take a full load of summer classes, but I also had limited choices with my elective classes for any given year. When my senior year started, my counselor notified me that I had a choice between two elective classes for that semester: German or speech. I felt that the speech class would be a better opportunity for me, and they always needed more students in that class. I explained to the counselor that I had lived in Germany a few years prior to coming here and was very comfortable with the language and preferred the German class. Naturally, the counselor agreed that this class would be much easier for me and I could be assured a better grade (which I desperately needed). So he started to make some notes in my file reflecting this choice as I waited there.

I was relieved as I stood there because I had passed by the speech classroom many times and it looked so intimidating. Outgoing, well spoken and confident students were always in the front of that class giving speeches or arguing with their opponents. I was shy, quiet and an introvert. Even the thought of getting up in front of people to introduce myself or simply ask questions in class struck terror in me. And besides, I barely had a year of English and was still very much struggling with the language. Even if I could muster the effort to stand up in front of people, there would be no way I could even get a passing grade in speech. While I stood there I quickly rationalized that I had made the right choice for I was simply not a speaker and I never would be. I told myself to relax! This is who you are. Be yourself! Make it easy on yourself.

The counselor was about to give me some instructions when a large African- American man walked in the room. “Hi, you must be Rafael. I am Mr. Livingston. I am your speech teacher. I’m happy to have you in my class.”   Confused, wide- eyed and terrified, I turned to look at my counselor. Unbeknownst to me he had volunteered me for that class the day before, for Mr. Livingston was always looking for more students for his unpopular class. “Oh, sorry it’s not going to work out, John. He is more comfortable with German. He speaks fluent German you know. Besides, he needs the credit and the good grade to graduate,” he told Mr. Livingston.

No Can SpeakAt this point Mr. Livingston turned toward me, put both hands on my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes. He said “Son, I know you are afraid. I see it all the time. I know you think the easier path is the way to go right now. But I promise you that if you let me work with you for the next few months, you will be better off. What I will teach you will serve you throughout your whole life, not just until graduation. I can’t tell you that it will be easy, but I promise you that it will be rewarding.” Shaking and terrified, I barely got these words out: “But…I don’t speak English well…. I am not a speaker…I need a good grade.” As soon as I got the last word out, he said, “I know. I know. I am asking you to take a chance. I am asking you to expand yourself. You ARE a speaker. I promise you, by the end of the semester you will believe it.” I turned to look at my counselor for a rescue and all I got was, “Well? Speech or German? The lunch bell is about to ring.”

At times life offers you a choice. Continue to be yourself or take a chance to reinvent yourself and become someone new. These opportunities are rare, very subtle, and may last only a few seconds. If you let fear, comfort and your past control you in those critical moments, you will choose to remain as you are and continue to be yourself. The possibility of growth and betterment instantly disappears, possibly forever. If you have learned to notice and appreciate the potential of those moments, however, you will make a wiser decision.

My body–frozen with fear and confusion–was shouting, “No! I am very uncomfortable. I don’t like this, say no!” My logical mind was shouting, “I’ve done the calculations based on your past abilities and skills, and this is going to be impossible. Trust me, you are NOT a speaker. Just say no thanks.” But deep down inside there was a voice that gently yet confidently was saying, “Time to let go of yourself. This moment is an opportunity to grow. Don’t miss this chance of a lifetime. You can be whoever you want. Pick speech.”   Reluctantly, and as softly as I could, I said, “Ok. Speech. I guess at least I can try.”

I am not going to sugar-coat things here. The next few months were full of fear, embarrassment and failures in the speech class. I still hear the sounds of laughter and gossip in the class. I still see the faces staring at me not just in disappointment but also in full confusion. Mostly, I hated the impromptu argumentation sessions where we had to pull a subject out of a bowl and flip a coin to see who would be arguing for or against the subject. Can you imagine arguing instantly for or against something for 3 minutes where not only you did not quite understand what it is but even worse totally mistaking the meaning of a word and going on and on about something totally unrelated to the subject matter? Once I argued full-heartedly for the importance of remaining conscious (staying alive or aware) when the subject was about “politicians remaining conscientious under difficult circumstances.”   Another time I argued against steel planes because they were too heavy to fly effectively and too expensive to build. It was a classic performance. The paper of course said, “Argue for or against government support for building the new stealth bomber plane.” Forget about the time I mistook “discuss” for “disgust.” I lost even Mr. Livingston on that one.

But throughout these tough situations, Mr. Livingston was always there to support and encourage me. Eventually, some of the students and at times even my own opponent came to my rescue. Students would clap longer and harder for me even though I had lost the argument to my opponent. Slowly, I noticed that I was no longer afraid to stand up in front of people. I noticed that as soon as I started talking, I no longer paid attention to my shaking hands, dripping sweat or the dry mouth. I noticed that when I spoke confidently and energetically people took me seriously (even if I had no clue about the subject matter). Is it possible that I had become a “Speaker”? A bad one, yes, but still I was a SPEAKER.

At the end of the semester Mr. Livingston announced that he was putting together a team to represent us in a speech tournament that was being held at a local college. Ten high schools were going to be there. The two day competition was fierce. Every school brought the best of the best. He read nine names. Four said yes. He needed five people. He read one last name. It was mine.

I was shocked. Surprised, I shouted, “What? Me? “ Confused, I looked around the room at the other students looking back at me with smiles and encouraging nods. No one looked surprised but me. They started saying, “Sure!” “Yes, you!” “Do it!” “You’ll do fine.” But I was the worst speaker in the class. I knew full well that as one of the five team members, I would be a major drag on the team. The team would surely lose. Mr. Livingston knew it. The four team members knew it. And the students? They all knew it too. But for some reason they wanted me to do it. (I believe that Mr. Livingston had talked to some prior to the class about his plans). Once again Mr. Livingston was staring into my fearful eyes and asking me to take another chance–a chance to let go of being myself and become better. To step outside of my comfort zone. To be more. “Ok, I am not very good. But I will do my best.”

That weekend my focus was not on myself. It was on my teacher, my team and my classmates. I wanted to make them proud. I wanted to fight for them. I wanted to do well for my school. It’s amazing how well things go when you forget about yourself and focus on the well-being of others. I gave two speeches and did five impromptu argumentations. Our team won third place. We all got medals. On an individual level, I came in 9th place out of 42. I could not believe it. One of the student judges approached me when it was all done and said, “Man, you had such bad grammar and so many mispronunciations that I lost count. But I had to give you the points because you were so energetic, convincing and confident that you crushed the other guy. What you lacked in technique you made up in heart. Great job.”

Mr. Livingston was feeling great. He had won medals for our school. The team was happy. One of the girls won 2nd place and had a silver medal, too. They all said I was great and that they were proud of me for how far I had come. I thought I was dreaming. I felt like a new person. Four months before, I could not even raise my hand to ask a question in class and here I was representing my school in a regional SPEECH COMPETITION.

I don’t know how my life would have turned out had I not decided to say yes to Mr. Livingston that day in the counselor’s office. I can only imagine how much I would have missed had I decided to take the easy way out and chosen to “Be Myself.” For the past twenty years, the ability to speak in front of a crowd has done wonders for my career, community work and social relationships. I have given speeches, conducted training classes, and held seminars.   It has helped me to close million dollar deals, climb up the corporate ladder and manage & motivate hundreds of employees. It has enabled me to give back to my community by setting up free talks and classes for local charities. I am still not a great speaker. I am average at best. I still have an accent, mispronounce words and my grammar is mediocre. But I AM a speaker. I have no problem getting up there confidently and saying what I have to say. What I lack in technique I always try to make up in heart.

Remember, you are your thoughts, experiences, memories, values and beliefs up to this point. These are the things that give you your identity and self image. You are a collection of all of your past experiences at this very moment. If you are not careful you will remain there and you will bring that past to the present and to every moment in your future. Good or bad, right or wrong, unfair or just, it will always feel more comfortable to be yourself. But that comfort, that security will instantly kill any growth potential and new opportunity that life generously and quietly presents to you. Being your-Self is fine as long as that “Self” is growing, improving and getting better. Quiet your body and your mind so you can hear your inner voice better. That is the voice of your higher and better Self. Let it help you notice and embrace the opportunities for growth and change that the universe puts on your path continuously.

Don’t continuously be your old self. Forget about your past. Embrace change. Be your new and improved self. Look at the present moment carefully and then face the future. Otherwise, you may find yourself to be alive but not fully living. Alive is a steady state. Living is an on-going process, a process of change and growth. And so it goes with being your Self. It’s not a steady state that you have to keep or protect. The Self is a process that continues to change and evolve–hopefully for the better.

Several years ago I went back to my high school looking to thank Mr. Livingston and tell him how he had helped not just me, but through me all the people I’ve had the honor of helping. I was told that he had a heart condition and had passed away a few months before. I am sorry I waited so long, Mr. Livingston. I wanted to tell you a few things from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for what you did for me. Thank you for putting me in a difficult position in order to help me grow and become better. Thank you for seeing in me what I myself could not.

Thank you for caring enough to ask me NOT to be myself and believe in a new Self. You changed my life.

This article is dedicated to you.

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