Moving Beyond the A-Word
I welcomed Adam Grant’s thoughtful cultural critique in the June 4th Sunday Times.“We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president,” Mr. Grant writes. “But for most people, ‘being yourself’ is actually terrible advice.” He suggests, instead, sincerity as an alternative.
I agree with him. I also agree with Brené Brown’s response, in which she argues for us to have the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries. She also notes the persistence of the cultural conditions that drove “authenticity” to the top of the buzzword charts. We live in a highly commercial society, pursued by marketers who peddle with fakery. She says, “We are tired of trying to live up to impossible ideals.”
As a CEO who coaches business people on how to perform and a lifelong stage performer myself, I believe that both Mr. Grant and Ms. Brown are correct.
Yet they are both missing two urgently important things.
The first of these is the idea of the inherent multiplicity of human nature. Imagine these scenarios:
- Your daughter puts her newborn baby in your arms for the first time.
- A state trooper blasts his siren and pulls you over.
- A conference room of new hires gazes expectantly at you as you stand to speak.
- A valued employee just made a costly mistake, then tried to cover it up.
If someone advised you to “be yourself,” in each of these situations, you’d probably ask, “Which self?” Each scenario calls upon your multiplicity. To be authentic in each of these scenes, you draw on different facets of your personality — love, respect, fear, courage, wisdom, to name a few. I call these different versions of you “characters” — and none of them are phony. They’re all you. And by playing all these characters you’re as genuine as you can be.
None of us has just one self — authentic or otherwise. Each day, life and work present us with situations both familiar and brand-new — tasks we don’t know how to do, people from different cultures and backgrounds, opportunities to experiment, explore, take a risk. And each day, in crafting new versions of ourselves in response to our changing world, we create and re-create who we are and who we are becoming. To perform in an ever-expanding array of new ways is a genuine human effort to live, learn and grow.
Which brings me to the second thing Mr. Grant and Ms. Brown overlook in their essays — and something that so many of us miss in our individualistically oriented society. They don’t mention that other people play a big role in creating who we are — and our performances. Even for a solo performer standing alone on an empty stage, the director, the stagehands, wardrobe crew, lighting technicians and the audience are co-creators of every moment.
As the performers of our everyday lives and work, we’re no different. We need to take our cues from colleagues, bosses and staff. We can use the techniques of improvisation, in which there are no scripts, and our greatest power is to listen, to hear and respond to what the other person says or does. Every statement, every piece of body language is an offer. To listen is to co-create, and how we express ourselves is closely connected to the “improvisational conversation” that we are in with others.
Certainly, work is a social environment and we are social individuals. Learning from, collaborating with, responding to those around us, we become who we are in concert with others, with an infinite array of variations in our performances of life and work. To downplay the centrality of our social environment in our quest for authenticity is, to me, profoundly inauthentic.
And so how can we be authentic? How can we be sincere? By performing our socially connected human multiplicity. Our era demands that we leave our comfort zones. We can and must be many selves.
Cathy Salit is a performer and co-founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold. Follow her on Twitter: @CathySalit