Bill Cosby once said that he doesn’t know the key to success but that the key to failure is trying to please everybody. There are 6 billion people walking the planet – and at least that many personalities. Chances are many of the personalities that you share the world with may find you or your lifestyle disagreeable in some way- or would if they knew you personally. They may hate you for your religion, your nationality or even for the shirt you happen to be wearing – not all of which are in your control. Even if you tried to please everyone, someone’s pleasure would come at the expense of another’s – or your own – and you’d have accomplished nothing in the end. That’s why you can only value other peoples’ opinions so much.

Perhaps it came after that first sandlot heartbreak, when little Susie chased little Joey instead of you around the playground during recess. Maybe it was after the first day of high school, when all the popular girls made fun of you because you hadn’t grown into your body quite yet. What to do about situations like these? We’ve all heard it: “just be yourself.”

It’s a telling irony that we’re often told to be ourselves just after the cruel world has told us we should be anything but. Society’s counsel is useful: We should be ourselves – To a certain degree. But to simply be yourself leaves an important element of human development out of the picture. It operates on the assumption that the current self is the best permutation of factors possible when there’s probably a ton of room for improvement. If “yourself” is someone who would just eat potato chips and watch DVDs all day, he’s not the person you should be. That’s why the old counsel doesn’t help people who’ve decided that they want more from tomorrow than they got out of life yesterday.

The better advice is to be your best self. Be the version of yourself that doesn’t simply consume but rather someone who produces work of value. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. Do what you do best and find creative applications for your gift.

Say you enjoy Michigan football. Rather than just cheering from the bleachers like everyone else, perhaps you should take the bus down to Schembechler Hall and find out how to get involved with the team. Coach Carr probably won’t let you call plays right away, but you should be doing something you love and something that gives you validation. If you like computers, maybe you’ll try your hand with graphics and building websites. There are a number of other ways to do this, but find one that applies to you and run with it.

This will take work, and it almost assuredly won’t go perfectly. Everything didn’t go smoothly when I first attempted to establish myself as a writer, and it doesn’t today. Everything I write doesn’t get published. Sometimes the timing will be off by a few days and I’ll have missed the perfect moment, sometimes it’s a philosophical disagreement with an editor and other times editors may think my writing flat-out stinks.

But because I believe in what I write, my setbacks only put me more in tune with my life: the ups, the downs, the feedback and the occasionally rejected article are all proof of how far I’ve come and how much further I have to go.

Today, I reframe letdowns as mere tests of my commitment, tests that I can’t possibly fail because I’ve come too far to turn back now. After you’ve had some success living as your best self and have challenged yourself to find opportunities in the seemingly mundane, you’ll begin to see failure as part of the process, as a reminder to respect and celebrate individual successes as they come, because nothing is guaranteed.

The further you go out on life’s limb, the greater your chance of suffering the occasional fall from grace. Sometimes the branch breaks. Whether you climb the tree again is the test of whether you’re living as your best self.

James Dickson can be reached at davidjam@umich.edu.

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