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When Being True to Yourself Becomes a Problem

Success and happiness are important to everyone but they mean something different to every single individual. That’s because we all have different values.

Some people love to work out; they look forward to a long run, to the high they get from physical exertion. Others prefer the couch and working their remote. Some thrive on stage, basking in the limelight, while most people dread public speaking, ranking it up there with the fear of death.

We often judge ourselves and others for the very qualities that make us unique. A fundamentally different approach is to embrace those differences and redefine success and happiness as being true to our personal values.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius advised his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” On the face of it, this seems like a noble priority. It seems to champion personal integrity and who could argue against that? But when we dive deeper into Polonius’s character, we discover a falseness in his behavior. He’s selfish, he vigorously protects his own interests, he’s arrogant and proud, and he’s spying on Hamlet for King Claudius. We come to realize that his primary value is putting himself first.

That’s sensible in certain situations, for instance, on an airplane when the oxygen masks appear. As the flight attendants always advise, you put your own on first, then you help others. But that’s very different than putting your mask on and then ignoring others. Or, stockpiling masks and selling them at an exorbitant price to fellow passengers!

We’ve all met people who take care of themselves in order to help others. Their selfishness has a purpose beyond themselves. They understand the true meaning of what the poet John Donne meant when he said, “No man is an island.”

We live in this world together, in families, in communities, in organizations, and this gives us constant opportunities to live our own values in relationship to others and collaborate on creating success and happiness together. As the well-known Chinese proverb says, “If you want happiness for an hour – take a nap. If you want happiness for a day – go fishing. If you want happiness for a month – get married. If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime – help others.”

We like to conclude these posts with a Thriving tip drawn from our book:

“Look into the future and become clear on what you want and how your values can be infused into your life to ensure that you live without regret.”

Christopher Harding and Will Wilkinson

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