Being “Yourself”

Feb 5, 2010

When you’re a little kid, you have everything to look forward to. You’re optimistic and excited. Bad things haven’t happened yet. You’re not judged. You’re just surrounded by people who love you. Then you go to school. And it goes downhill from there. Or at least it did for me.

When I was young, I loved engaging in the arts, whether it was singing or dancing or drawing or acting or playing music or dressing up. I did it all. And it was fun. But when I entered school, it was made very clear to me by every other child that I was different. And, as such, I became a subject of ridicule. I was terribly confused. I thought my sensitivity, care and attention to detail would make me naturally accepted by my peers, but instead I seemed very out of place.

They wanted to rough-house. I wanted to draw.

They wanted to kill insects. I wanted to save them.

They wanted to make fun of the girls. I wanted to kiss them.

It was lonely, and I didn’t want to be lonely. Having had such a strong passion for all things and a desire to connect with other people, being lonely is probably the worst thing I could have had growing up. Quite a dilemma… you want to be true to the values that make you who you are, but you also want to be accepted and liked.

People suggested that I stop caring what other kids thought and just be myself. But they weren’t there with me in school when I had to constantly sit alone, when I was ridiculed to tears or when my entire fifth grade class sang the lyrics to “We are the Champions” and replaced the phrase, “No time for losers,” with, “No time for Eric.” Be myself? I think not.

It became apparent to me pretty early on that I had to choose between being me and being accepted. I chose the latter and tried every which way I could to fit in: changing how I thought, what I cared about, how I dressed, how I acted. To me, there seemed to be no other option. Lucky for me, I guess, I was able to translate my inner voice to other mediums, such as art and doing well at school. Granted, it still set me apart from other people, but there was no way I was going to purposely do poorly in school just to fit in … it was the only part of me I retained. Kids were drawn to characteristics I just didn’t have, so I was left to change everything else about me.

I begged my parents for a new box of crayons to bring to class so kids would want to draw with me, even though I always preferred colored pencils. It backfired; suddenly kids were interested in aromatic markers instead.

I needed my dad to come in and give a talk about taking care of your teeth so I could help out with the demonstration and feel special. It backfired; he didn’t let me help out.

I got myself a laptop in eighth grade to take notes in science class so that kids would think I was cool for having it. It backfired; I became too much of a nerd.

I had to get a pretend earring so I could seem as cool as my friend who had a real one and never seemed to get teased. It backfired; the kids said it made me look gay.

I had to buy the popular clothes from Abercrombie so I could at least start looking like everyone else. It backfired; none of the clothes fit me.

I had to force myself to climb the unknotted rope in gym class like everyone else. It backfired; I tired quickly and then couldn’t even climb the easier, knotted rope.

I had to make fun of other kids to avoid getting ridiculed myself. It backfired; I got detention and ridicule anyway.

I had to cheat on test so I could ensure I’d still get good grades. It backfired; somebody told the teacher.

I tried to make fun of myself and beat the other kids to it. It backfired;  I just gave them better material.

I tried helping my classmates out during our fourth grade group Scrabble sessions by scoring big words, but that backfired because I was taking the game too seriously.

I tried getting involved in intramural basketball. But that backfired too; I wasn’t very good and thus, I was teased.

The only thing I really had going for me – in my mind – was that I was doing well in school and was able to make things that people liked. So I clung to that as my identity and safe haven. When I felt bad about myself for anything, I told myself I didn’t have to care about what people said because, for example, I did better on a math test or I was friends with the teacher or my class project got the highest grade. It gave me a sense of self worth which I was severely lacking. To add to my frustration, I often felt unable to express myself honestly and kids often misinterpreted what I meant and twisted it so I still looked like a bad guy.

I feel like I’ve been so concerned with how other people see me for so long that I’ve blurred the lines between what I do for me and what I do for other people. And this, of course, is bad practice in design.  A lot of designers, including myself, have advocated the sentiment that you shouldn’t let your users define your brand or your product. That’s not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t consider their opinions and feedback and weigh it into your decision-making. But at the end of the day, you really have to create your own vision and be confident in it. This is a value I know is central to companies like Apple and Facebook.

You can’t design for everyone. I should know – there’s just no way to make everyone happy. If you’re not confident in yourself and you try diluting your identity to incorporate everyone else’s feedback, you end up with something where no one’s happy – and, in the design world, products which are overly complicated, lack focus and ease of use, and are just unpopular. This is something I’ve found from my experience at Microsoft. Despite incredible talent and success, they seem to have lost their way. When you try to satisfy every constraint and spend so much time appeasing other people, you become something you’re not and it’s a terribly sad situation when you realize it (and even more sad if you don’t).

Sometimes I don’t even know if what I feel or think is actually me or if it’s just the result of years of adapting. I like to think I’ve tried hard to be true to my values and beliefs, but there’s always some doubt in my mind about my motivations and reasoning. Even now that I’m a lot older and have had a lot of experience at a lot of places, I’m still not entirely confident. And it’s hard being yourself when you don’t even know who you are yet.

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