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Unpacking “You Do You”

This article is part of the Unpacking Culture series in which we examine a well-known axiom and weigh any true or positive aspects of it against any negative or misleading connotations of the phrase.

The Age of Authenticity

The slang phrase “you do you” may seem innocuous enough. Picture a large group of twenty-somethings sharing a dinner at a pizza restaurant, trying to decide whether to place one order of pizzas to share or let each individual order separately. Even if a quorum lands on a couple of pizzas that sound good to everyone, invariably a dissenter or two will protest, preferring something else on the menu. Rather than reason together to achieve full consensus (a possibly arduous, painfully long process—they’re hungry!), they simply release the dissenter to order separately: Suit yourself, man. You do you!

We’ve all been there—whether in placing dinner orders or deciding how to spend free time on a family vacation. Consensus is hard, especially in an individualistic culture where “have it your way” consumerism is the air we breathe. Sometimes it’s just easier to say, You do you, I’ll do me, and let each person go their separate way, like the modern family whose every member sits at the dinner table glued to their own personal device. They’re alone together; sharing the same space but living in different worlds.

The Wisdom Pyramid

Brett McCracken

Helping believers navigate today’s media-saturated culture, Brett McCracken presents a biblical case for wisdom. Using the illustration of a Wisdom Pyramid, he points readers to more lasting and reliable sources of wisdom—not for their own glorification, but ultimately for God’s.

Beyond these situational contexts, however, “you do you” has taken on a bigger cultural meaning. Defined in various places as “the act of doing what one believes is the right decision, being oneself” (Urban Dictionary) or as a phrase “used to say that someone should do what they think is best, what they enjoy most, or what suits their personality" (Cambridge Dictionary), “You do you” has become a symbolic phrase that perfectly captures the spirit of what Charles Taylor calls the “Age of Authenticity.”1

If on the surface it evokes the “virtues” of rugged individualism and personal empowerment, the deeper implications of “you do you” are rather foreboding. For in a fallen world where the “heart is deceitful, above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), do we really want to encourage one another to just do whatever we think is best? Whatever is “right in our own eyes”? Read the book of Judges—or countless other historical accounts of self-made morality—and you’ll quickly see this never ends well.

Biblical wisdom exposes many problematic dimensions of the “you do you” mentality, but here are just three.

1. “You do you” weakens community and fosters foolishness.

As the pizza-restaurant-ordering example above illustrates, community can be complicated. In an age when convenience and efficiency are high values, community can feel like an inconvenience that slows you down. “You do you” is an anthem of liberation from the constraints of community. The old saying is wise: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” But in today’s world, going fast trumps going far. Thus, “you do you” prevails over “let’s do this together.”

This is to our detriment. Community is not only a gift for our sustainability (“going far”), but it’s also a gift for our survival, both in a literal sense—what infant would long survive without its family?—and in a spiritual sense. Whether we’re deciding on a college to attend or a job offer to take, a person to marry or a financial decision to make, we “go it alone” to our folly. We should want people in our lives to speak hard truths when necessary, redirect our errant paths, and grab us from the brink of self-imposed disaster. God puts people into our lives not to rubber stamp our every whim and fancy, but to point us to truth and offer wise advice—not to shrug and say “you do you” while we walk off a ledge, but to boldly say, “you should do,” even if it’s hard for us to hear.

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,” declares Proverbs 12:15, “but a wise man listens to advice.” Indeed, a “you do you” world perpetuates the foolishness that comes when we downplay the collective wisdom of community and champion the autonomy of individuals to do what is right in their own eyes.

2. “You do you” provides cover for sin.

Big problems arise when a culture’s “you do you” value is applied to morality. When we’ve moved past the antiquated “shoulds” and “shall nots” of ethics based on a transcendent source, all that’s left is “you do you”—to each their own. But that spells trouble.

If “you do you” is as much as we can muster as a moral metric, we set society up to excuse all manner of sin under the banner of “being oneself.” The novelist Colson Whitehead, writing about “you do you” for the New York Times (“How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture”), reflects on the problem of “you do you” as a hall pass for bad behavior:

“You do you,” taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.2

We are made to grow in interdependent community, sharpened by and accountable to others, not in isolation.

Even if we’re not talking about warmongering dictators, “you do you” provides cover for sins closer to home. A married man and father of young children says his authentic self demands he divorce his wife so that he can be with another lover. A teenage girl feels she is a boy and seeks hormone treatments and “top surgery” without her parents’ knowledge. A college student engages in habitual use of psychedelic mushrooms because it “makes her happy.” On what grounds could a “you do you” world protest any of these actions?

Far from liberating, “you do you” as a moral framework is cruel. By nature we struggle to make wise decisions in isolation from others. Paul speaks for all of us when he writes in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” For natural born sinners like us—prone to wander, self-deceive, and self-destruct—“you do you” is terrible advice.

3. “You do you” leads to loneliness and despair.

Proverbs 26:12 captures why “you do you” leads not to fulfillment, but hopelessness: “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

Why? Because we are made to grow in interdependent community, sharpened by and accountable to others, not in isolation. We are created to flourish within our Creator’s laws and design, not to make our own rules and re-create ourselves as we wish.

As I write in The Wisdom Pyramid, the relativistic posture of “you do you” / “your truth” not only weakens community and cultivates moral chaos, but it also puts an incredible, self-justifying burden on the individual:

If we are all self-made projects whose destinies are wholly ours to discover and implement, life becomes a rat race of performative individuality. “Live your truth” autonomy is thus as exhausting as it is incoherent… “Your truth” autonomy invariably leads to loneliness. It erroneously suggests we can live unencumbered and uninfluenced by the various structures that surround us (families, churches, cultures, biology, etc.). But it becomes impossible to form community when everyone is their own island, with no necessary reliance upon larger truths or embeddedness within a bigger story.3

Within societies, “you do you” creates hyper-fragmented atomization where consensus and coalitions of every sort become impossible. Within families, “you do you” fosters tension, infighting, and inevitable fracture. Within the church, “you do you” undermines discipleship (which calls every individual not to be “authentic” to themselves, but to become more like Jesus).

For sinful man, “you do you” sounds nice. We naturally want to do what we want, to have it our way, to live “our truth.” But this is actually the path to loneliness, grief, and ultimately destruction.

Better Than “You Do You”

Biblical wisdom calls us to a far better mantra than “you do you,” and Proverbs 3:5–7 captures it well:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.

Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

Instead of “you do you” (leaning on your own understanding and being wise in your own eyes), which is the path to foolishness and pain, we should trust in God. Our way will lead to wandering. His way will make our path straight.

So love your friends, families, and neighbors by avoiding the tepid “you do you” response when you see them making poor choices. Instead of sanctioning their subjective whims, point them to the objective, higher wisdom of God. Remind them that it might at first feel like a constraint, but in the end God’s wisdom will bring “healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (Prov. 3:8).

Notes:

  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018).
  2. Whitehead, Colson. “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.” New York Times, March 31, 2015.
  3. Brett McCracken, The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 59.

Brett McCracken is the author of The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World.



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