In college, the first art teacher that I had was somewhat stereotypical. He showed up everyday in the same black shirt and thick-framed glasses, toting a mysterious red liquid in an ever-changing plastic container. He spoke very slowly in an unwavering tone, creating a relaxed environment akin to what I imagine a café in Amsterdam would feel like. Some days were terribly boring; I remember very clearly the day we gathered around our professor to watch him paint swatches of colors for about an hour. Other days were more interesting, as he revealed small pearls of wisdom disguised as stories of his past experiences.
My professor said that one day he found himself thinking about the types of people who were currently enrolled in his art course. These people all tried to dress the part of “the artist” by making their appearance as outlandish as possible. Piercings, hats, tattoos, colorful hair, and odd clothing were some of the many tools that they utilized in an attempt to appear unique, while also fitting into the mold of what they thought an artist should look like.
As my professor looked around the room, he noticed that it was not the people with the wacky hairstyles or the barrettes that stood out. It was the two football players who had simply taken the course for an easy A. In every other classroom they would have been the “normal” ones, but here they were the “freaks” that didn’t fit in. By trying so hard to be unique individuals, his art students had created an environment in which they were exactly what they feared most; ordinary. Yet, when they stepped out of that door and into a business or a science course, they once again became distinctive.
The lesson to be gained from this story is that there is no such thing as being “normal” or “unique” because circumstances will arise in which we are each of these things in their own turn. Furthermore, our personalities and sense of self are so complex, and at times contradictory, that we might as well allow ourselves to feel, act, and dress in a way that reflects who we truly are regardless of which label we long to achieve.
I once knew a girl who had one half of her head shaved, and the other half dyed green. She listened to music by bands that I had never even heard of, and the graphic design projects that she completed were always outside of the box. I wondered if this girl was truly being herself by being different from the rest of us when it came to every single aspect of her personality, or if there was a repressed part of her that shared common societal interests. Then, one cold December morning, a group of us were chatting about our love of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies when I asked the green haired girl whether she liked them or not. I thought for sure that she was going to disagree with the rest of us, to shake her head and say, “You guys are lame.” Instead she owned up to an interest that made her “fit in” by admitting that she loved them too. From that moment on, I respected her because I realized that she truly was being herself regardless of our expectations and opinions of her.
All of us “fit in” in some ways; all of us stand out in others. It doesn’t matter who society expects us to be, or whether we believe that being a certain way is better than another. There are very few things that we can change about who we are, and our combination of normal and unique characteristics is not one of them. So instead of struggling to be someone you’re not, strive to be the truest version of you.
Have a few minutes? Check out this inspirational Ted Talk about the importance of being yourself!
Header image courtesy of Viktor Hanacek
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