One of the most thoroughly useless, idiotic pieces of advice any of us got while attempting to navigate the labyrinth of adolescence was to not worry about what others do or think, “just be yourself”. A friend of mine back then unwittingly refuted this platitude with a plaintive question: “But what if wanting other people to like me and approve of me is part of who I am?” Exactly. That was the whole issue, wasn’t it? We didn’t know who we were, and it certainly wasn’t helpful to have absorbed the idea that your character was largely fixed and immutable, and that experimenting with different ways of thinking, talking, dressing, or behaving was a sign of superficiality and deceitfulness. I never even considered that developing one’s character partially (or even largely) by imitation could be a positive thing until I read about the psychological concept of modelling when I was in my twenties.

Once again, we find the – ahem – Platonic notion that we all contain some irreducible essence from the beginning, a “true self”, and all we need to do is focus or clear away all the debris that prevents us from perceiving it. How much time and energy have been wasted in second-guessing ourselves, groping around and waiting in vain for some clear sign that, yes, this is absolutely who I am, this is absolutely what I was meant to do, the heavens have opened up, the beam of light is shining down, and the angelic chorus is singing; finally I’ve harmonized my soul with the nature of existence itself?
Most people, if they know anything basic about Nietzsche, will probably cite “God is dead”, the Übermensch, and the will to power. But to me, one of the most integral and useful aspects of his philosophy is also one of the most sadly overlooked and unappreciated . These passages are from Julian Young’s book Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art, dealing with some of his ideas on the malleable nature of our selfhood, and ways in which we can treat the process of developing our personalities as we would creating a literal work of art. I’ve snipped and mashed-up a few of the sentences and scholarly references for clarity’s sake:
How is art involved in the Dionysian solution? As with the Apollonian, it requires one to view, to create oneself as an “aesthetic phenomenon.” Imitating again the techniques of artists in the literal sense, especially the technique of aesthetic distance, one is required to view the self from a distance so that rather than regarding it “in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast and reality itself”, rather than its being “nothing but foreground”, we learn to see the wood for the trees, to see ourselves “simplified and transfigured”, “to see and…esteem the hero that is concealed in everyday characters.” …One is, in other words, to come to view all the details of one’s life as fitting together into the kind of coherent unity that we demand of a well-executed character in literature.
There are two aspects to Nietzsche’s repeated injunction to “become who you are”. The first is the anti-Delphic idea that the self is something one “becomes”, that is, makes or creates rather than discovers. It is a fundamental position of the later Nietzsche that there is no real, given self waiting to be discovered, neither a self conceived as a persisting Cartesian object, nor a self conceived in the related Schopenhauerian or Freudian manner, as a set of “real”, innate and unalterable, but largely repressed desires. The self, Nietzsche holds, resembles the state; it may be conceived as a “social structure of drives and affects”. As such, though its elements may be given, it, like the state, is the product of free creative activity. The second is the idea of becoming who one is as opposed to who one is not, the idea of becoming an authentic rather than inauthentic self.
[…] This, it must be emphasized, is by no means Nietzsche’s only technique for accommodating the “questionable”: another consists in exhibiting problematic attributes and events not as means to but rather as parts of the good…So, for example, one might see a character trait that in isolation one might regard as a vice as, in the context of one’s personality as a whole, having the necessary function of softening, of taking the hard edge off one’s virtues, humanizing one’s character.
A further technique that applies to only one – but a very important – phenomenon, the phenomenon of death, is to see its occurrence at a given time as demanded by the pleasingness of one’s life as a whole, in the way in which the inner logic of a play or piece of music demands that at a certain point it should stop. Zarathustra enjoins: “Die at the right time!” One should, he says, “cease letting oneself be eaten when one tastes best” and not, like a wizen apple, hang upon the branch for too long.
The important thing to notice about all these techniques for coming to terms with prima facie evils in one’s life is that one cannot do it without choosing who you are: deciding, that is, what your dominant desires, character traits, emotions, goals and values are. I cannot view a weakness as contributing to the overall attractiveness of my nature unless I know the “artistic plan” of that nature as a whole.
Notice that the process of creating this self is an artistic process, a task of ordering the events in one’s life that in some respects is analogous to the writing of a Bildungsroman, a story of the growth of personality from naivety to maturity, and in other respects is analogous to the task of creating a character that will engage the esteem and attention of the reader.
In this outlook, one might spend a lot of time, especially while young, “trying on” different lifestyles and attitudes like one would new clothes, perhaps discarding them immediately, perhaps growing into them, perhaps altering them slightly into something more unique to their individual sensibilities, all without any guilty sense that they were somehow being fake, betraying the self they were “meant” to be. I’m not even suggesting “growth” as a metaphor here, because even that can imply teleology, a set pattern, an established end point, a desired result. This is just about change, not necessarily for the better or the worse. Certain aspects of our characters are more intrinsic than others, of course, but many of the traits we display consistently are just there out of habit; we reached a point where we gave up on seeking new sources of inspiration and settled for the comfort of predictability.
How many of us can honestly claim to be compelling, intriguing characters? How many of us have found a way to be interesting individuals without lapsing into knee-jerk contrarianism? How many of us could look back on the lives we’ve lived and feel a sense of pride similar to that of viewing a completed work of art? And how many of us have settled for preexisting narratives and clichés instead?
To give style to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed – both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed has been concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon towards the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!
For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry or art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.