We need to stop accusing people of “reinventing themselves”

Why present a process of change to one of self-interested re-branding?

We all know the stereotype, and if you don’t you’ll be in for a treat in Freshers’ Week.

You were most likely a nerd at school, or if you were popular you were a little peripheral.  Cambridge is your chance to change that. Arriving at a place where, let’s face it, everyone is pretty clever, your intelligence is very unlikely to define you, or even be noticed. This is your tabula rasa. Perhaps a friend even told you that you’d be “cool for Cambridge”. Through a dubious marriage of consumerism and spirituality, you’ll be a new person. Post-reinvention, you’ll be fitter, happier, more productive.

Really, Kid A was when it all changed, but for copyright reasons OK Computer will have to do.

But it’s never that easy. Reinvention is a double-edged sword – you end up being stereotyped as a poser by most, and suffer from your own paranoia of being found out for pretending to be something you are not. So, why is there a preoccupation with “reinvention”? Why is this term so frequently used as a pejorative, and is such a critique fair?

The phrase itself sits uncomfortably. “Reinventing yourself” reeks of artifice, as though you can just manufacture a new person. This idea goes against a 21st century preoccupation with authenticity, or at least a semblance of it, a phenomenon that has manifested itself in creatures as diverse as Nigel Farage and Ed Sheeran. Society has a penchant for figures who seem to be themselves, even when they are in fact manufactured: the (rather racist) man down the pub and the boy next door. Ironically, the individualism of secondhand wavy garms is part of this very same phenomenon. You’re identifiable and can be easily categorised.

Apparently Ed Sheeran being an “honest bloke” excuses his limited music talent

In this way, reinventors and their critics are united by the very same preoccupation: the need for an atomic, intrinsic “self”. This is, in part, the result of a predominantly visual popular culture and social media where semblances of personalities are quickly identifiable. But does there need to be a contained, identifiable self that others can recognise, can see? The phrase reinventing yourself turns any change into something narcissistic, focussed on image and other people’s opinion. It exacerbates an unfair and unhelpful stereotype.

In the end, any attempts to find and reflect on a “self” are often exhausting and unsatisfying. We are far too volatile, too easily changed by our environment for this. What’s more, over-reflection can lead to crippling self-consciousness, as though each thing we do says something about us and is being judged.  In truth, no one is watching and in the best possible way, no one cares. So, let’s stop thinking of the “self” in this way. Instead of focusing on results, let’s put the emphasis on the process of discovery.

St Joseph feeling anxious about whether his new trousers reflect his true self

For most of us, Cambridge is our opportunity to do things we didn’t do before. For many, it’s an opportunity to express themselves in ways they felt unable to at home. From cooking with coconut oil to sexual experimentation, Cambridge is one of the best places to do it. A lot of what is cheaply labelled “reinvention” is far more cathartic than this.

Through all of this, see the “self” as a vehicle that brings you new experiences, rather than the dictator of your behaviour. It’s through this that you genuinely find out about yourself. True authenticity is a process with many turns and trials, not an artificial result that can be chosen. So let’s not be so petty by reducing this to “reinventing yourself”.

University of Cambridge