William Shakespeare is one of the most quoted authors ever. Four hundred years later, he continues to have a profound influence on our literature, films, and philosophy.
One of the famous lines from Hamlet is “To thine own self be true”. I have often heard this quote invoked to justify what amounts to a lack of character. That usage couldn’t be farther from Shakespeare’s intent.
This is Polonius’s final advice to his son. His parting words. If Laertes remembers nothing else his father has taught him, he should remember this one lesson:
This, above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, 78–81
This is profound advice, and probably the longest Shakespearean quote I’ve committed to memory without sitting down to memorize a passage. Let’s break this into three stages.
You are a unique individual. You have developed talents and strengths that others haven’t developed yet (keep going—you’re not done yet). Your experience gives you a different perspective than anyone else has.
So guess what? You are going to do things differently than anyone else will. That’s a good thing. We often fall into the trap of thinking we have to come from a cookie cutter to fit in with a group. We don’t. The strength of a group comes from the variety of its members.
Be True to Yourself
Being true to yourself means more than just being yourself. To be true is to be loyal, to act in your best interest. To have integrity. To stand up for yourself. No one has a greater interest in your happiness, career, and prosperity than you do.
Be aware of your inner dialogue. Are you constantly tearing yourself down? If you focus on the negative, you’ll start to see only the worst in yourself and others. Instead, build yourself up. Encourage yourself. When you make a mistake, learn and shrug it off. Show yourself the same patience, forgiveness, and respect that you’d extend to someone else. It makes a huge difference.
Be True to Others
The crux of Polonius’ advice is that if you can be true to yourself in all things, you will naturally and inevitably be true to others. If you aren’t loyal to others, you aren’t being loyal to yourself. If you aren’t honest with yourself, it’s not possible to be honest with others.
There really isn’t a difference between what’s best for you and what’s best for someone else. If that doesn’t make sense, change your definition of “best” until it does.
If I forget my wallet and you loan me $10 for lunch (thanks!), it’s in my best interest to pay you back. If I don’t, I’ve just developed a reputation for not paying my debts. I can’t be trusted. I’ll take advantage of friends. There’s no way that’s worth ten bucks.
Life is one indivisible whole. You can’t separate how you treat yourself from how you treat your spouse, your kids, your friends, and your coworkers. Act with integrity. You are true to yourself only if you are true to those around you.