Being Your Own Man

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 11, 2009 · 44 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood


Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
-All quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance

When you’re eight years old, you’re pretty much oblivious to the opinions of others. You can wear a superhero cape to the grocery store, pretend to be a pirate at a party, and declare that your aunt’s blouse is ugly, all without a second thought to the judgment of others. Then one day, most likely in middle school, some snot-nosed kid makes a crack about your Spiderman t-shirt, and while you pretend to blow it off, the t-shirt never again sees the light of day. You slowly become keenly aware of your friends’, family’s, and society’s expectations for how to should act, dress, and behave. You lose your inner-compass.

And yet every man wishes to recapture to a certain degree that boyish obliviousness to the pressure to conform. They envy the few men who have preserved it, who walk around completely comfortable in their own skin, cool, confident, and aloof from the criticisms of others. They do their own thing. We celebrate these men in literature and in movies. He’s James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. He’s Christopher McCandless heading Into the Wild. Of course fictional portrayals and stories ending with a lonely death in a school bus are one thing, but how does a normal guy practically navigate the real world, while also holding true to who he is?

When to Change, When to Stick

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

Of course, if you’re currently an obstinate idiot, you shouldn’t justify your identity under the guise of “being your own man.” So how do you know if you have arrived at a point of personal development that you would even want to preserve your identity against the onslaught of others?
Are you having success? If you’re moving up in the world, and doing well for yourself, but people are criticizing what you’re doing, brush off these haters. If you weren’t doing a good job, then you wouldn’t be finding success. These people are usually jealous and just trying to hold you down.

Do you have some supporters? No one will ever be universally popular. (See below). But if your actions have completely isolated you, you’re doing something wrong. Many men, pushed by their behavior into complete solitude, counter that they are simply following in the veritable footsteps of the great men in history, men whose revolutionary ideas brought scorn and retaliation from society. But the truth is that even the most revolutionary men had some fans. Jesus? Socrates? Galileo? King? Sure they were ostracized by many, but all were embraced by at least a few. Emerson, who vigorously preached the doctrine of non-conformity, was still quite popular in his day. In truth, if who you are and what you do is good, useful, or interesting, at least some people will support you. If your personality is causing others to avoid you like the plague, then you need to change before embracing your identity.

Fight Your Insecurities

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

When you find yourself the target of criticism, you may develop self-doubt and become insecure about the path you have chosen. There are several things you can do to combat these doubts before they paralyze you or tempt you to change to please others:

Figure out your values. If you don’t know who you are, what you value, and what your goals are, than you’ll find yourself easily buffeted about by any wind of change. You will become a chameleon of a man, trying on new indentifies as you move amongst different groups of people. You must come to a keen understanding of what lies at your core, building a firm foundation so that when criticism comes, when setbacks come, you will not be tempted to doubt yourself.

Sit down, preferably in a quiet, secluded spot, free of distraction (I recommend going camping), and take out a notebook. Spend a good deal of time reviewing your life, thinking about the times you were happiest and most miserable. Make at list of your goals and dreams. Make a list of your values, ethics, and morals. List the things that are most important to you. List the things that you never want to become and aren’t willing to compromise. When you are tempted to conform to the ideas of others, read over what you have written. Is the thing you are tempted to change in line with your values and goals? Then stop worrying about changing it and be secure in your choice. Does someone’s suggestion line up with your values, maybe even better than the course you’re on now? Then embrace that feedback and don’t be afraid to change.

Read biographies of great men. The common thread you will find in every story of every great man, was that they were never popular with everyone. Each one had their supporters and detractors, and the latter could be unrelenting in their scorn. Success books are filled with stories of men whose ideas were dismissed in their day, only to be embraced and heralded years later. When Theodore Roosevelt was a NY assemblyman, he was constantly derided by newspapers for his over the top rhetoric, which the editors found laughable. Of course, now we remember him as one of the great orators in history.

Create some affirming maxims. When I feel under assault and criticism tempts me to change my course, I simply remember a few things that help keep me on track:

  • “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” This simple quote from that wise Dr. Seuss, is surprisingly profound. When you’re feeling attacked for who you are, just remember that those who love you, the people who really matter, care for you no matter what. Those who harp on you aren’t people you should care about anyway, and you shouldn’t waste your time obsessing over what they think of you.
  • “No one, no one is universally likeable.” Think of an extremely likeable personality? Larry King? Will Smith? Sure, a lot of people like these men, but there are people who can’t stand them as well. With anything you do, from how you dress to things you write, a bunch of people are going to love it and a bunch of people are going to hate it. That’s life. You can’t spend your time trying to get everyone to like you. It’s never going to happen. And that’s okay. You have to realize the identity of the people who criticize you. By and large they are men who aren’t doing anything themselves. They haven’t written a book, but they love to pan them. They don’t have a blog, but they love to criticize them. They’ve never made a film, but they love to review them. They’re not in the arena, they’re in the stands. And you shouldn’t give a damn about what they think.
  • “If no one is criticizing you, it’s because you’re not doing anything important.” It’s very easy to avoid criticisms in life-do as Elbert Hubbard says, “Do nothing. Say nothing. Be nothing.” If you’re being criticized, it’s because you’re actually on the radar, and not laboring in obscurity as most men are. The bigger you get, the bigger target you become, and the more arrows will come your way. Instead of seeing criticism as a reason to change, celebrate its arrival as a marker of your success.

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Rediscover Your Inner Compass

Limit your media consumption. Every day we are bombarded by thousands of images and a cacophony of voices. This bevy of noise and sounds lodges somewhere in our brains, slowly and subtly informing our ideas of how a man should look, act, speak, and live. Of course no man is truly conscious of this. No man proclaims, “I’m buying this truck because of the relentless advertising I have seen on it!” No, the true goal of advertising to is to not only create an idea in your mind, but to create the impression that you came up with the idea independently.

Although many critics panned it, I really enjoyed the film Vanilla Sky. I thought it brilliantly portrayed the way in which many of our thoughts and our construction of reality are shaped by popular culture. I imagine these ideas as great webs, whose fibers grow thicker and more complex with every television show, film, and CD we consume. Soon there is a blanket of cobwebs filling your mind, feeding on and consuming your thoughts before they can grow to maturation. Every once in awhile you must take a broom to them and clean house. Unplug and take part in real activities, with real people.

Exit the echo chamber. Only a decade ago, men lived their lives without the ability to know how others judged their every move and action. Not so today. Now a man can get feedback on every choice he makes. After he sees a movie, he checks to see if the film critic’s reviews line up with his. After buying a CD, he checks to see if other fans felt the same way about their favorite band’s latest songs. When a thought crosses his mind, he twitters it to his friends. He places his picture on to see if others perceive him as attractive. He completes surveys on Facebook to see what he has in common with his friends. In short, he lives his life in an echo chamber. He cannot as much as use the john without letting his friends know and asking for feedback.

Resist the impulse to want to know what everyone thinks about your decisions. Consuming so much feedback will leave your constantly insecure about your choices and tempt you to mold future decisions according to how your friends voted.

Don’t follow anyone’s advice to the T, including ours. Some men seek to create their persona and hone their identity by copying the success and identity of other great men. While I wholeheartedly support the study of the lives of men you admire, any identity you can glean from a book (or a blog), is one that can and will be easily shed as personal circumstances change. Instead, takes the lessons and ideas of others men as guidelines, as inspiration, and then make them into your own.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daniel January 11, 2009 at 11:15 pm

I whole heartedly endorse this message.
Try wearing a three piece suit, with all the proper accessories including a homburg, in a town where even the ‘dignified’ elders’ gad about it in beachwear (an hour from the coast too).

2 conlleva January 12, 2009 at 2:50 am

Great divagation, it takes “guts” to be yourself in this commercially commanded world. Let’s face it, most things revolves around money, true values are forgotten, love in most cases comes down quenching basic revolutionary instincts, true friendship exists where there is dual benefit of it’s existence …
…where is this simplicity and beauty of true ,selfless, uncalculated love, friendship and life enjoyment… maybe in some good old books that are replaced by those which shouldn’t be read.

There is less and less independent individuals and it’s all because is extremly hard to live a life true to yourself in this demanding world. It’s much easier just to go with the flow and do what everybody else does, put yourself in whirl what’s around you and mindlessly following it without every questing it.

And those who dare to be true to themselves are pushed away, labelled as anti-social or depreciated to noting and ended up wondering what’s the point of it all if that’s not what is expected of me (what is universally accepted).

Good luck with trying to be yourself.

3 Ian January 12, 2009 at 5:17 am

There’s a true high-wire act when maintaining a balance of poise, humility and confidence all the while not alienating people. The ability to balance many seemingly conflicting characteristics while appealing to enough people to accomplish goals and form a useful network is harder to apply than what most people feel its worth.

That’s why you find so few people of outstanding character and/or quality.

4 NZR (the Plainsman) January 12, 2009 at 9:31 am

This was good for me to read too, as I used to (and still to some extent) change how I act or how I be based upon a new idea.
The AoM helped me temper this. While it is a new “idea” or lifestyle to follow, it did seem to summarize things that I carry dear into one place.

As for limiting information, I recommend an Information Diet, which is something I have been doing for a couple weeks. It works just to allow you mind to think.

5 Bob Iger January 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Great piece of advice. I can certainly use this in daily life.

6 Brett C January 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm

anyone know what kind of motorcycle that is in the picture? looks like the one from A Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

7 Shakeel January 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm

My maxim on being my own man? “The reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. The unreasonable man adapts his environment to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

8 Brucifer January 12, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Unfortunately, for most men of our era, it is a case of ‘Rebel Without A Clue.’ Their idea of “being your own man” is to emulate boorishness and slovenliness. With their ubiquitous ‘uniform’ of sports jerseys, khaki pants and baseball caps, they fancy that informality of dress and manners is properly manly. Many couldn’t tie a tie if their lives depended on it and their feet have never known anything but athletic sneakers. Thus, it is one who sports a suit and tie, who is often the non-conformist. Alas, much to my chagrin, dressing well and having a modicum of manners is now often thought by both men and women to be “gay.”

Far too many men also use “being you own man” as license to be a douchebag. They cover-up their own insecurities under the guise of being a “loveable asshole.”

9 engineer guy January 12, 2009 at 3:07 pm

My maxim, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” I don’t know who actually said it but I know it was inspired by an adidas ad.

10 Bostonhud January 12, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Possibly the best post you’ve ever written. Well done.
My favorite piece of advice? Don’t follow anyone’s advice to the T, including ours. Wonderful.

11 Dave January 12, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Once again, an awesome article from the Art of Manliness.

Just a note though. In 7 hours from now the Best Culture blog awards close and WE’RE COMING 2ND BY A MARGIN to The Cool Hunter! So to all those that appreciate this weebsite and want to see manliness acknowledged in this world VOTE for ART OF MANLINESS!

Regards to all

12 Brett Balcar January 12, 2009 at 4:17 pm

I think I am one of the people who need to exit the echo chamber

13 Jeremy (Discovering Dad) January 12, 2009 at 6:43 pm

This advice reminds me of Bob Moawad’s Increasing Human Effectiveness training, especially the part about creating positive maxims. Positive self-talk definitely helps to build positive self-image. I also agree wholeheartedly with the advice about reading biographies of great men (and women). Two of my favorites are Plain Speaking about Harry Truman and Theodore Rex about Teddy Roosevelt. Great post – thanks!

14 Andrew January 12, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Fantastic post. I’m a screenwriter, and when I’m working on a piece I love I have to prepare myself for the horrors of hearing other people’s opinions. This means I must open my mind to new ideas when I’d rather not, while at the same time push away comments which may harm the piece. It can get pretty difficult to the old ego at times.
By the way, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is a great biography of an inspiring life.

15 @ Brett C January 12, 2009 at 8:25 pm

It’s an Indian motorcycle, though I’m unsure of the year. Looks to be mid-to-late ’30s, but I could be wrong.

16 Greg Throne January 12, 2009 at 8:29 pm

To ye who asked. The bike is an Indian. Sorry, no longer around, but Valvoline (The motor oil on the shop sign behind the stogie-smoking gent in the riding breeches and leather puttees.) still is in business.

17 Jason January 13, 2009 at 4:29 am

Interesting article.
Kinda reminds me of “Fight Club”(the movie or the book, both good).
I quit watching the news years ago; all you ever hear is murder, death, temperature, and high scores. I can get my weather and high scores from the web.

18 Mac January 13, 2009 at 12:39 pm

We can do better then this.
Chris McCandless was a blithering idiot.
While being your own man is the most noble of pursuits, dignifying by even the most brief of mentions someone who removed themselves from the gene pool by their own ineptitude and stupidity while attempting to out-Thoreau the author of “Walden” is truly beneath the other examples of manliness in this blog.

19 Brett January 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm


I don’t think your reading the post right. The mentioning of McCandless and Dean are meant to represent what men often think of when they think of “being their own man,” not as examples of what being your own man should mean.

20 Accountant January 14, 2009 at 9:00 pm
21 Danny Poland January 15, 2009 at 3:32 am

The motorcycle in the photo above is an Indian Motorcycle. The motorcycle in the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is a Triumph.

22 Apjak January 15, 2009 at 6:54 am

Speaking of Indian motorcycles, the movie the World’s Fastest Indian with Anothony Hopkin’s features the story of man who was his own man.

23 JW316 January 15, 2009 at 7:07 am

If you liked this post…do yourself a favor; read Self Reliance in its entirety. Then read Heroism, the Over-Soul and Nature.

These essays take a few hours to get through…but its time well spent.

24 Indifference Curve January 18, 2009 at 5:50 am

Words to the Wise. Truly in this day and age it seems so very hard for a man to find his way in this world without a hundred and one stumbling blocks telling you how to eat, dress, think, and be.

25 Infinity February 2, 2009 at 7:40 am

Amazing post! This year should be about being your own man and making things happen for yourself.

Let your game speak.

26 Andrew February 2, 2009 at 9:55 am

Thank you – The Art of Manliness is a breath of fresh air.

Never before have I seen such topical, engaging, and valuable content for men anywhere on the internet. I think you do a great service to “man-kind” everywhere.

I run an all-boys mentoring program in New York City and often use content from The Art of Manliness in the various talks I give to the students. The mentoring program promotes character, professionalism, and virtue by means of example and one-on-one mentoring. The articles found on The Art of Manliness provide me with convincing ways to present virtue to the boys and supply ample historical examples and quotes to back them up.

I would love to recommend this site to the boys themselves (and their fathers for that matter) but have recently been deterred by the raunchy diet ads featuring the midsections of poorly dressed women. Perhaps you are not aware of these ads or contract out your ad space to another company. Regardless, there are a few ads that are frequently found on your site which are not only inconsistent with your message but gross and offensive.

Nevertheless, the articles found on your site are superb. I hope many men find it a frequent source of insight and motivation.

Best wishes to The Art of Manliness.


27 Tom February 2, 2009 at 6:06 pm

You guys should know that Christopher McCandless was a really guy

28 David February 5, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Very nice article, and something that every man should keep in mind.

29 Eugene March 12, 2009 at 5:47 pm


30 Eden Wynter August 30, 2009 at 4:09 pm

This post has made me realize the importance of truly knowing the core of who I am and the man I want to become. Pursuing my goals and striving for excellence has at times been difficult because I have allowed the criticism of others to affect my self worth. After reading this post today I feel like a new man. Truly inspirational.
Thank you Mr. Mckay

31 Floomer99 June 17, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The articles on here are ten times better than menshealth and the like. There was once a time that I tried to conform to the masses–making every mistake they made and doing every stupid little thing just to improve what I foolishly thought was my image. It was only until I lost a relationship that I realized that I was doing a disservice to myself by not having a mind of my own.

Be yourself. If your friends are complaining, they’re not your friends anyway. A woman may go after so called “men”–who can’t tie a tie, can’t wear a suit and aren’t qualified to clean a toilet for a living, but that is only because they have low self esteem and don’t think they deserve a real man. People who won’t accept you for who you are aren’t worth your time.

Stand up for yourself. I used to be an extreme doormat. In fact, I was the dirt beneath the doormat–or the dirt beneath that dirt. I used to play the nice guy because I constantly seeked approval and affection of those around me. It took some time, but I have realized that people don’t want to befriend someone who they can walk all over or who will take all the crap that comes their way. You can’t be afraid to say no. You don’t need to please everyone, and if you want to be a leader, you will one day have to say no — even if it means making enemies.

Don’t be afraid of what you don’t need to be afraid of. We tend to be afraid of things when there is no need to be afraid. I used to play it safe because I was afraid of what would happen if I took action. However, the consequences of not taking action are always greater. I realize now that we are all equal–no matter how much money you have, how physically strong you are or how beautiful you are–we are all human and there is no need for me to be intimidated–or scared by another human being.

Leave the past where it belongs. I used to be consumed by the past. “I wish I had done this…” “If only I had done that…” “Its all his faullt” etc… I can’t change the past, but I can learn from it. You have to take the positive lessons with you and keep looking forward. Being angry about something that has already happened and you can’t change is pointless and a waste of energy. If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it. Just let it go and move on.

Sorry to go on like that, but that’s what I got from the article. Keep up the good work. I wish there was a publication to give the establishment a run for its money.

32 Mike June 17, 2010 at 5:04 pm

This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you so much for all you do.

It’s funny when I think back to how I found this site — Disappointed by my observations of the state of man today, I sought to create a site like this, and thought I should do a few quick searches to see what similar offerings are already out there. Well I’ve been wholly impressed with what I’ve found here — so much so that I don’t see a need to dedicate a significant part of my time and energy to something similar. Just keep it up. You’re doing a fantastic service for the small percentage of men who will embrace the principles of your very well-written articles.

33 ramón June 19, 2010 at 3:56 am

great read. I’ve always been a fan of Emerson. His messaged still rings soo true maybe even more so in today’s times.

34 Dixon June 21, 2010 at 10:56 am

Haters gonna hate, as they say…

35 Joseph Walker June 22, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I identify very strongly with the content of this article. It ties in well with the “self-actualisation” series, and other articles presented on this site.

The image at the header is striking: a young, black biker – during an era in which this would not have necessarily conformed to social norms: neatly dressed, who is smoking. He is obviously going about his business, just doing what he enjoys. Iconoclastic.

What adds to the charm of this photo is that a wedding band adorns his left ring finger, so he is enjoying a sense of freedom whilst it may be assumed he has not shirked the responsibility of marriage.

As a happily married, tattooed biker, with 47 cm biceps, working as a scientist, I embrace what others may perceive as opposite spheres of being. My point is this:

Do what you love, and harm none.

Thank you to all the commentors for making this a constructive and positively influenced site.

36 abc June 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm

What a wake up call this was for me. I’ve always felt like a chameleon of a man, every day, all the time i feel like im acting out of what i believe others think of me, believing that my thoughts about myself are the same. I will read this article every morning to remind me, so i don’t forget and just keep on going the same way, unchanged.

37 Jimmy E. June 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

I am currently fighting a battle between who I am and what the military is wanting me to be. 10 years in, I love what I do but the values have deteriorated. I hold true to my values of respect and integrity. Thanks for the great article.

38 Jonathan July 14, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Good article, however I might point out that “Into the wild” is not actually a work of fiction.

39 Timo July 20, 2010 at 12:53 am

Be yourself (as long as yourself is worth being).

One of my favorite novels is Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. The message that stuck with me the most from the novel is the futility of following any leader, even if they are seemingly right. Listening to someone who understands is not the same actually understanding, which ought to be the aim. At the same time ignoring people who are right because you want to be “independent” is just as wrong.

I think the lesson to be gained from great men is not what they did, but the reasons they had for doing it.

40 tyson August 12, 2013 at 9:55 pm

i constantly find myself asking what’s wrong with me, but i don’t think it’s really me. this article has inspired me to know and value myself more.

41 Jack September 25, 2013 at 4:06 am

Great writing as always, really appreciated these insights. I’ve always felt a bit lost not having a strong male presence in my life to look up to so for me this site is really indispensable. One point I would like to emphasize is the need for fluidity in a man’s personality. At a fundamental evolutionary level, we are defined by our adaptive successes. This is not to say that a person should concede themselves to every trend or convenience but rather have the strength and competence to suit them self in any given situation. I have a very strong personality and I am working on making that accessible while still retaining (even amplifying) my identity and values. The world is neutral; painted by the subjective reality we project, and this is why self mastery is so crucial as we progress (though never in an entirely linear fashion) through any given level of consciousness we may attain if we so will it. Thanks again for the article, God bless.

42 oxbox March 14, 2014 at 4:26 am

I needed this so much right now, my thanks

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