Why “I am what I am” is a hymn to mediocrity

Gloria Gaynor: wrong on all counts

You will only lead a remarkable life if you aim for perfection.

I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses,” sang Gloria Gaynor. I disagree. Who I am needs a lot of excuses. I am generally lazy and unmotivated. It is hard for me to get interested or follow a task through, and my ideal day would be to look at the sea from my window and think of nothing. And this is known to have happened. This is who I am, and this is a recipe for an unremarkable life.
I read a lot of backlash against the pressure to be perfect imposed by western society. What’s wrong with being perfect? “Who I am” is a fluid concept which can – and should be – shaped. Garry Kasparov, who is often called the world’s greatest ever chess player, thinks that pushing yourself is “part of talent”. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, he said of his arch-rival Anatoly Karpov: “If it were not for Karpov, I would probably be the victim of the same complacency that dooms most other people.”
Do people who push for more feel crippled by the pressure? Far from it. At my university reunion, high achievers – some naturally talented, but most just hard workers – looked the picture of joyful contentment, whereas those who chose undemanding career paths appeared mostly unfulfilled, as well as visibly jealous of their more successful comrades. As students, most of them dreamt big: they wanted to write a great novel, or win the Nobel Prize, or run a large corporation. Now, in their late thirties, they seemed weary and disillusioned, and their wildest aspiration was to be promoted to senior manager in time to pay off their mortgage.


Often, to discover what we are capable of, we need external pressures. In the fourth grade, a new boy, a maths genius, came to my class. He was so gifted I was afraid to speak to him, but each day I went home from school and drilled fractions because I wanted to be as good as him. Before I met this boy, I thought that maths was for kids with no friends. Because of him, I grew to enjoy this elegant and powerful science, and I still solve an odd equation for fun. The essence of “who I was” changed, and for the better.
A friend of mine recently left a well-known company, where he managed a wildly successful fund, to start his own fund management firm from scratch. He is in his fifties and says that, if he does not make this step before he retires, he would regret it. He is who he is – an insatiable spirit with a zest for life and curiosity, still driven to excel, despite achieving what most in the City could only dream of. Was he born like this? No, he tells me that this is what he became.
“Never settle for who you are,” said Michael from the US version of The Office to the fat and awkward Kevin. In the case of Kevin, settling for who he was – without any attempt to become something better – led to a lifetime at Dunder Mifflin, a paper company, a blur of days, months and years, most of them unremarkable and wasted. And just an occasional thought of what may have been.
As I was writing this article, a good friend said that accepting who you are prevents grandiose delusions. But then delusions can be stimulating. I am still hoping to learn to play chess. Perhaps this is delusional, but it keeps the possibility alive.
Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

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