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Be Yourself – But Not Too Much!


Be Yourself – But Not Too Much!

James Anderson shares a wise word or two from the world of existential philosophy and how it relates to the world of work.

Defining ‘existentialism’ is surprisingly difficult.  For a start, few of its most famous proponents would even recognise or accept the label – and fewer still are partial to simple explanations*.  When people ask me, I generally offer a word salad of some of the key ‘existential’ themes: freedom, responsibility, authenticity, meaning, absurdity, angst, and so on.  I was therefore really intrigued by a super-clear definition I recently came across from a well-regarded existential psychotherapist, Ernesto Spinelli:

Existentialism is a system of investigation that addresses a fundamental human paradox: that we both want to stand out and be unique, and at the same time blend in and be part of a whole.** 

I don’t know how many of the canonical existentialists would agree with this – they tend to be very much on the “standing out” side of things.  Nietzsche was vigorously against going along with ‘the herd’; Heidegger lived alone in a ski hut high in the mountains; Sartre and de Beauvoir shocked bourgeois society with their unconventional lifestyle.  And all of them were frankly pretty odd.

But I do think Spinelli is on to something – not least in the workplace.  On the one hand, we are required to conform: working patterns, competency models, corporate values, mandatory training and so forth.  And at the same time we are asked to bring our own unique skills, ideas, enthusiasm and energy to what we do.  Sometimes it is inadvisable, or even impossible, to do both***. 

Spinelli says this is not surprising.  It’s part of the human condition – and the bad news is that there are no easy answers to it (always beware easy answers).  The good news is that we have many generations of philosophy to draw on: to help us figure out what matters most to us; to remind us of our profound freedom to be and do as we want; to encourage us to take responsibility for our actions; and to enable us to chart the best path between standing out and blending in.

Do you need to stand out more?  Or perhaps blend in a bit from time to time?  I’m always happy to have a no obligation chat about what coaching can do for you. 

* Here’s a particular favourite of mine, from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death: ‘The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself.  The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.’ So that’s all clear, then.

** Slight paraphrase – you can find the source here:

What Is Existential Philosophy? Professor Ernesto Spinelli

*** There’s a running joke I have with some of my friends.  Before important meetings and interviews we say “You’ll be fine – just be yourself!  But not too much.”


Read the full article, “Stand Out or Blend In,” on