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“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
E.E. Cummings

The first chapter in my new book The Good Among the Great discusses how to become autonomous. Autonomy means looking within, accepting and acting on your deepest, truest desires, and forging a life that reflects you—and then relaxing about it.

The first step is to believe deep down in your guts that it’s not selfish to follow your wants. Becoming “who you really are” is about freedom for yourself and usefulness to others. These are lofty goals, not self-serving ones. You owe it to yourself and to the world to be yourself. The trick, of course, is how.

In my life and in my professional interviews with very successful people, I’ve found that autonomous people often had super supportive parents; they’ve never had much reason to doubt themselves or their goals. They come from happy, successful families that inculcated confidence. As a result, they’re rarely insecure about their appearance, behavior or life choices. To the rest of us, autonomous individuals come across as comfortable in their own skins, assured, and even detached or aloof. Psychologist Abraham Maslow described them as “self-contained” (page 36, Motivation and Personality). I would describe them as self-sufficient. They don’t depend on approval from those around them.

One mother of four and grandmother of six who articulates this kind of enveloping affirmation is Paula (better known as “Poosie”) Orr from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Poosie describes autonomy as has having enough comfort about yourself so that you can focus on others.

Those of us who weren’t given enough “roots” to give our own desires a real try usually need insightful, fearless friends to help us know and believe in ourselves… or we need professional counseling.

The best I can do here is to give you a theoretical primer on the importance of personal “autonomy” and describe how the best human beings live it. First, the theory. Abraham Maslow called the psychologically healthiest and strongest individuals among us “self-actualizing.” He wrote that they “accept themselves and their own nature without chagrin or complaint or, for that matter, even without thinking about the matter very much.” The self-actualized are cool cats, not drama queens. They don’t talk or even think much about whom they are and what they want. They just are. The closest I personally get to feeling this is the calm I feel after a long run or any other exhausting and rewarding activity.

Being comfortable with yourself, independent and self-governing in your life is not just a state of mind, it’s also a fundamental tenant of American philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it. William James lauds Emerson’s emancipating creed “that everything that ever was or will be is here in the enveloping now; that man has but to obey himself – He who will rest in what he is, is part of Destiny.” (Pg. 202, “William James, In the Maelstrom of American Modernism”)

How can you know if you’re truly obeying yourself? Watch Andrew Ferguson, a young Teach for America grad, talk about those teachers he’d known who were not autonomous. Rather, they were tired and tiresome as they tried to live a life that wasn’t their own.


“Not fun!” How many wonderful souls have told you that you ought to be having more fun! I’m serious. If your day-to-day existence is not often FUN, then you’re a long way from living your life—the one you’re meant to be living.

One great way to start having more fun and being more yourself is to appreciate the animal within you. Recognize your appetites. Strong people have strong appetites and they have little or no shame in satisfying them! Without being careless or selfish, indulge your bodily desires for love, food, sleep, exercise, play, competition—your animal instincts. Then focus on your day-to-day life. Do you live where you want to live? Are you with the person with whom you truly want to be? And on and on.

Finally, remember what former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley advises: “The externals of one’s life ought to reflect the internals. You have to live life not to the drumbeat of others’ expectation. You have to life your life to the drumbeat of your inner self.”

I wish you all the courage, perseverance and faith that you need live your life to your unique drumbeat.

Cheers from Sonoma,
Donald Van de Mark

I want your feedback!  Which of the 19 traits are you studying, and how are you incorporating them into your daily life?  Connect with me on:
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About the author

Donald Van de Mark
Donald Van de Mark is the author of The Good Among the Great: 19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People.



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One Response to “Becoming Who You Really Are – Trait #1, Autonomous”

  1. […] know your own heart. A strong self-awareness is how you begin to build independence—the kind of autonomy that not only propels you forward into the larger world but makes you less in need of affirmation […]