This Socrates quote is basically saying that in order to know who you are, you have to be free from the influence of others. When you follow the choices of others without considering how you feel about the choices you are making, and let them influence your decisions, you are not being yourself. In fact, you are allowing the personalities of others to overshadow your own. Over time, doing this may cause you to not even know who you are as a person. In order to find out who you are, you have to think and act by your own will, and not let the pressure of others push you into doing things you may not have done without the pressure of your peers, elders or anyone else who may influence your decisions. This is important because thinking for yourself and acting on what you believe is right is what makes you an individual.
The main trait that this quote is getting across is “individuality”. Society often urges people to conform. Whatever personality traits were popular at the time are the ones that everyone tends to try and imitate. By conforming to what is considered popular, you are losing your identity. While attempting to blend in, many people make poor decisions that are influenced by peers. These decisions often lead to negative consequences that can have long-term effects on your life. For example, if the “cool” thing at the time is to do drugs, and you do them even though you know it is wrong, so many bad things can happen. You can overdose, end up in legal trouble, or even get addicted. Things like this can change who you are into someone you don’t even recognize. This sort of scenario happens all the time with actors. They get so immersed into their roles that they take on characteristics of the characters they play and as a result they begin to lose parts of themselves. Keeping your individuality sometimes means standing up to others by saying “no” when they are pressuring you to do something that you know is wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes this may cause people to turn their backs on you, but those who truly are your friends will respect you for embracing your individuality and making your own choices. Individuality is the most important part of a person because it is what makes everyone different and it is what makes you the person you are.
Applying this to your everyday life can be difficult, especially for a teenager or young adult when friendship and popularity are such important parts of life. People who are actually friends will respect you for making your own choices and some may even follow you in doing the same thing. To maintain your individuality it is important to accept yourself for who you are, flaws and all. You must also expect others to accept you and respect that you make your own decisions. Avoid trying to impress people because this is when you are more likely to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. You know what is right and wrong, everyone has a moral compass. The reason it is there is to help you make the right decisions. Embrace it, if you feel something is wrong then don’t do it. Respect the choices of others to do what they feel is right, but do not compromise your own values in order to satisfy someone else. Here is a scenario that perfectly embodies the concept of individuality. You and a friend stay up all night having fun. An assignment is due the next day, so your friend plagiarizes the assignment. She tries to get you to do the same and you choose not to. Instead, you decide to be honest with the teacher. Not only are you staying true to your morals, but you are setting a good example for your friend to follow. Staying true to yourself means doing what you feel is right, and that is the only way you will discover who you are.
An obstacle that may come with applying this principle is self-confidence. Without confidence it can be hard to make your own decisions because people without confidence usually strive to become someone else. As a result, they make decisions that they think the person they want to become would make, even when they know it is wrong. Insecurity will push you to allow others to control your decisions. You can beat this by accepting your flaws, and even embracing them. Confidence breeds the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe. If you know that your opinion of yourself matters much more than the opinion of others, then you are less likely to conform to others due to your insecurities. Standing up for yourself, and watching the respect you will gain, will help to boost your confidence so that you don’t have to feel insecure about being who you are.
This concept is necessary to a functional and progressive society. People conform easily to others, which causes everyone to adopt the same opinions, even if those opinions are wrong. If no one is different then no one questions those opinions and they become considered fact. The point of having a diverse society is that everyone is different. We all have our own opinions and we can all learn from the opinions of others. If everyone conformed, then nothing would ever be challenged. As a result, no new knowledge would ever be discovered. In order to make advances, we need people who think differently. People who will question what is considered to be true. It is these people that make us change our ways of thinking over time, which helps us advance and discover more knowledge. A world where everyone is the same would be a very dull world.
from The Best of Socrates, The Founding Philosophies of Ethics, Virtues & Life, Third Edition