When I was in fourth grade, my family moved to the town across the river. The move was not traumatic, but it was socially isolating. We had to move out of our old house three months before our new house was finished being built. We ended up as the only tenants in an apartment complex across town from where we used to live. For the fall, I went to my old elementary school and saw my old neighborhood friends and familiar classmates during the day, but I saw no one my age outside of school during the week or on weekends. Besides my parents, I saw no one on nights and weekends.
As an only child, I could keep my own company. I watched a lot of TV that fall. I played a lot of Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt. By Christmas, I was so bored that I actually mastered playing Gyromite with R.O.B. the Robot, which is a game that is both preposterously difficult (I mean, look at this) and equally unrewarding.
On New Year’s Day we moved into our new house, which was newly built in in a new, single-road housing development that was not yet completed. The house was both awesome—so big! so new!—and lonely. It inhabited the unfinished end of the street; half our neighbors were empty lots. We didn’t have streetlights or mailboxes. Our front yard had no trees, no grass, and no bushes; it was a sea of straw, strewn over frozen mud. My best friend for the first week was the little TV in my room that I watched while my parents unpacked their things.
Starting over at school, and making what friends I could in my new, very small neighborhood—especially after months of social isolation—was tough. I would ask my parents how to make new friends in my new town, where the kids all dressed differently, talked differently, and cared about different things than the kids I was friends with in my prior life. How do you start talking to someone you don’t know without coming across like an idiot?
They would say, wisely, “just be yourself.” That was pretty much the only advice I ever got growing up about how to act, how to fit in, and how to be comfortable in new social situations. It is terrible advice.
When I moved to a new town, I didn’t need to “be myself.” I needed to change myself: to become someone flexible enough to adapt to my new situation, to meet new people halfway, to be more open to taking chances, and to care less about every moment that didn’t go so well. It took me a long time to figure that out, but I did. I adjusted. I made friends. I found my people. It took a long time, and over that time I changed myself into a person far more comfortable with who I was and who I wasn’t.
“Just be yourself” doesn’t mean “just be yourself.” It means don’t hate yourself. Truly. For every inch of “don’t change yourself to fit in” in those words, there is a mile of “put yourself out there, and don’t let yourself feel destroyed if it doesn’t work out.” Try, and try again, but don’t hate yourself when you fail to make a connection or have to put your foot in your mouth. Don’t hate yourself when you don’t measure up, don’t fit in, and don’t succeed.
So, when you face a new challenge in life, don’t be yourself. Be better.