Is it time to consider authenticity an unworthy goal? When the headline of an Op/Ed in the New York Times proclaims that “Being Yourself” is the worst advice ever, folks take notice. Especially when the author is well-respected author and professor perceived to be a thought-leader in the world of psychology and business. When a beloved icon for coaches and therapists is quoted and writes a rebuttal, we eagerly read.
We are currently living in a culture of social sharing; we share photos of our dinner alongside glamorous trips and picture-perfect outfits of the day. The war cry seems to be that the path to happiness and success can be yours if you would just learn to be authentic.
Yet, when do we cross the line that our version of authenticity isn’t being authentic, it’s oversharing and borders on being a jerk?
I am neither Adam Grant nor Brené Brown, but because the core of my coaching practice shares some of their tenets, I felt compelled to not just read, but dive into the issues that authenticity brings up for each of us as we transverse this thing called life. And the truth is that learning to get in touch with my own authenticity is what transformed my life from barely hanging on to loving my life and myself.
I am a fact-finder. I look to research and thought-leader opinion and extrapolate that into digestible pieces for myself, my clients, and my readers. I read Grant’s original Op/Ed, Brown’s rebuttal, and Grant’s additional clarification in response to Brown’s rebuttal. I dug into the research drawn upon as well because each author can’t help but allow their life experiences color their interpretations.
The question then becomes: is authenticity the answer to happiness and success or is it keeping people from the kind of life they desire?
Based on my own life experiences and the experiences of my clients, here’s my opinion – and advice – on whether you should consider authenticity as the path to a life you love. Much of this may come across as semantics of language, but words have power. The words we speak, write, and read? They matter.
To take the statement that being yourself is bad advice at the surface level is going to lead down the road to living a life that will always feel off. And, let’s be honest: when you put on a mask and pretend to be someone you aren’t, it will be impossible to maintain that forever. See, that’s the problem with not being yourself, your true self, in both life and business. Eventually, the façade will crack. It will come in the midst of crisis or change: a particular birthday, a child leaving home, the death of a parent, a divorce, or more.
Learning to model behavior is not putting up a façade nor is it donning masks. It is learning how the world in which you live and work works. You can both model behavior of the leaders in your life – bosses, teachers, parents – and still be authentic.
Humans have always learned how to get along in society by emulating the way others behave. And, if you are uncomfortable modeling the behaviors of your chosen tribe – be it social, familial, or professional – because it feels inauthentic, then you are in an environment that doesn’t fit you. So, you have the choice to find a new environment so that you CAN be yourself. And yes, that choice to leave will be uncomfortable.
Being yourself, however, doesn’t excuse you from learning good manners. Grant suggests sincerity instead of authenticity, but I believe you can be yourself and still be sincere. Unless, of course, you’re a sociopath or narcissist.
As part of human society, you have the responsibility to learn to use tools to help you be a part of society. You need filters, so that every thought that enters your head doesn’t come out of your mouth. That means that no, everyone doesn’t need to know your opinion of politics, current events, or what you think about them. No, I am not suggesting you become a liar; nor am I suggesting that you pretend to believe something you don’t. Instead, choose to be both authentic and sincere and ask yourself if what you’re about to say is kind or necessary.
As part of human society, you must learn to understand that not everyone is going to see the world as you do. Each of us is different and our experiences color how we see the world. Our experiences impact who we are friends with, what we like to eat, and what we believe about God and politics. Each person’s opinion is valid, because it is their belief. You can be true to yourself and your beliefs without forcing your beliefs upon others.
Spewing hate-speech or being hateful to someone, forcing your strong opinions on others, gossiping, and speaking without the regard for the feelings of others and then using the guise of “I’m just being authentic” or “I’m just following my coach’s advice to be myself” is not being authentic. Because, authentic and sincere people filter all the opinions and thoughts in their head before they are spoken.
When dealing with yourself and with others, a sense of propriety is a good tool. Using this tool doesn’t mean that you aren’t yourself and it doesn’t mean that you aren’t sincere. That means that sharing the details of your medical procedures with a stranger in line at the grocery store isn’t appropriate. It means learning to draw the line on what is really shareable on social media and what is crossing that line.
Everyone’s story matters. However, not everyone should hear all the dirty details of your life. And frankly, not everyone should hear all the fabulous details of your life either. It doesn’t negate the fact that you matter, what it indicates is that you have healthy boundaries and a profound respect for yourself.
This is where a sense of propriety comes in: you can be authentic and sincere in pretty much every situation without sharing every vulnerable detail of your life. You create boundaries around your story because not everyone has earned the RIGHT to hear your story. Those details of your life, especially when you are in the midst of crisis, should be protected from those that might draw unkind opinions of you based on your vulnerabilities. Boundaries and a sense of propriety mean that you share with your best friend but not your co-worker.
This is where I agree with Grant, especially if you are working in the corporate jungle: you have a responsibility to yourself, your career, and your employer to be sincere and also to be yourself, but to do so without sharing every single detail of your life.
You can practice authenticity while maintaining a sense of boundaries.
And yes, that means that what you share digitally matters, because when you have any kind of social media profile, anyone can see it. You may argue that it is inauthentic to censor yourself on social media – both what you post on your own page and the comments you post to others. But, this isn’t censorship, this is called having a sense of propriety and having healthy boundaries.
Grant wrote his Op/Ed as a Professor at Wharton, a top business school. I approach the world from a space of relationship with self and intimate relations. And, frankly, I see his side. We need to share less to the masses and hold space for our vulnerability in safety.
No, I don’t work in corporate America any longer, however, most of my clients are CEOs and CFOs and Director Level employees and the work we do together is around self and sense of self, not corporate leadership. My choice to work with clients on the personal side of their life will always affect how they perform in their work world. Because how you do one thing is how you do everything. As much as we try to compartmentalize the roles we play, self-development touches all areas of life.
You must remember that even if you aren’t a leader in the corporate world, you are the leader in your own life. You must look yourself in the mirror each day, and that means that the person that you must be honest and authentic with is YOU.
PS – I didn’t touch on the issue of authenticity and intimate relationships today. I promise to do so in the near future.