In defense of authenticity

A few weeks ago, Adam Grant published a piece in the New York Times titled “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice”. For those of you who don’t know Adam, he is a rock star academic at the Wharton School. Look him up. He’s the real deal. And on top of his incredible academic pedigree and accomplishments, he has a beautiful name exceeded only by his undeniably sexy hairstyle.

I was lucky to meet Adam once. And he seemed like a really good guy. So it’s with a little discomfort that I have to disagree with him.

Let’s take a quick look at Adam’s argument. First, his definition of authenticity: “Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.” Adam then makes two key points.

1. Being authentic is a bad idea. “Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.” Adam gives an example of an author who, in an attempt to be totally authentic for a few weeks, told an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single. For Adam, authenticity is about being a low self-monitor — someone who isn’t particularly concerned with external appearances and social acceptance.

2. It’s harmful to even believe that there is such thing as your true self. Here, Adam references studies showing that belief in a fixed self can hinder personal growth, that children who see abilities as fixed are more likely to give up after failure and that managers who believe talent is fixed aren’t good coaches.

Authenticity is a big deal for me. I consider myself a student of Ralph Waldo Emerson and have been inspired by his essay “Self-Reliance” since I was 13. Belief in the value of authenticity has shaped my personality, my beliefs and values and the way I’ve developed as a professional. So I feel compelled to defend this concept that I so greatly cherish.

I think Adam has simply misunderstood what authenticity is. It’s not, as he construes it, the tendency to share with the world your unedited stream of consciousness. Of course nobody wants that. Of course no new mother wants you to tell her that her baby is ugly. Nobody wants to hear every little brain fart you have, but people absolutely do want you to be authentic. We all hate phonies and ass-kissers. We want to know when we’re interacting with you, that you are who you say you are. We want to know that you aren’t simply putting on a show for us. We especially want to know that you aren’t pretending to be what you’re not in order to get something out of us that we wouldn’t otherwise be willing to give.

Adam shared the story of the author telling an editor he would try to sleep with her if he was single. That example fails to support his argument. First, it doesn’t match his own definition of authenticity: “erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world”. “I want to sleep with you” is hardly a firm belief. It’s an urge. An appetite. I doubt that any serious person who believes in the value of authenticity would say it means telling others your every urge. But even if the author’s desire to sleep with the editor was a firm belief, and authenticity demanded that he reveal it to the outside world (this is a big if but just go with me), that tells us nothing about how he should have revealed it, when, where, to whom. I think decent people intuitively understand that it’s rude and degrading for a man to tell a female coworker that he would try and sleep with her if he were single. There are better ways of expressing interest and every decent man knows this. This experiment was not a test of the social value of authenticity. It was a test of the social impact of being an asshole.

There are two parts to Adam’s definition of authenticity. There’s the firm belief and there’s what you reveal. Adam defines authenticity as congruence between those two. I’ve argued above that sometimes what looks like a problem with authenticity is really a problem with how you share what’s inside of your brain, not that you’ve shared it. But let’s also consider the other part of Adam’s definition, the firm belief. Sometimes the problem is not that you’ve been authentic but that you hold beliefs that the rest of us find noxious. As someone who places tremendous value on authenticity, I will always respect people for staying true to themselves. Always. But that’s not my only consideration. If someone’s true self is an asshole, then even though I respect their authenticity, I really want them to change and then be authentic about something else. The problem, for example, with neo-Nazi marchers is not that they are faithfully expressing their opinions. Actually, I’m quite glad when such people are open about their views. It makes it easier to keep an eye on them. The problem is with their opinions in the first instance. What I want, is for them to abandon their hateful views, not get better at self-monitoring!

So the author’s experiment doesn’t tell us much about authenticity. But if anyone wants to conduct an experiment on the value of authenticity, I propose they try starting every conversation as follows: “I don’t believe what I’m about to tell you. But I’ve been paying attention to you and I’m pretty sure this conversation will go better if I say it anyway.” If people don’t value authenticity, then these conversations should go swimmingly. Any takers?

So if authenticity isn’t your every thought and impulse unfiltered, what is it?

To answer that, we first have to explore the concept of the self. A lot of ink has been spilled by philosophers exploring the question of whether there’s such thing as a true self or even how it’s possible for us to know. I’m not going to wade into that argument here. But I do think Adam’s a bit confused. Because having a true self and having a fixed self are not the same thing at all. It’s entirely possible to have a true self which evolves over time.

So what is our self? What are we? Well, we’re a complex stew of interests, beliefs, values, appetites, thoughts, tendencies, desires, fears, skills, emotions, impulses and probably a lot more. So when we say ‘true self’, which part of the stew are we referring to? Adam argues that the true self (if it exists) is “a combination of our convictions and abilities”. He then cites studies that demonstrate a negative effect of believing in fixed abilities. He switches from “true” to “fixed” and from “convictions and abilities” to only abilities. That’s playing a bit fast and loose with the concepts and the data.

I think when we use the term ‘true self’ that we are, in fact, referring to convictions — the values, beliefs, ideals and principles that we intend to organize our lives around. And sure, these can evolve over time, but that doesn’t mean that in every moment there isn’t a set of core principles that are foundational for us, that comprise our true self. Unlike Adam, I don’t consider abilities to be part of the true self. If they were, then somewhere around the age of 40 our true selves all change when we lose the ability to read without glasses. A trivial example perhaps, but that’s precisely my point. Including abilities into the concept of true self trivializes what I think is a much more fundamental notion of who you are (as opposed to what you do).

With that in mind, let’s go back and look at the concept of authenticity.

Remember, Adam defines this as “erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.” So if we see the true self as our core convictions then much of Adam’s argument against authenticity evaporates. Your desire to sleep with a woman at work is not part of your true self. It’s an appetite you have in a moment. And withholding that information from her is no more inauthentic than failing to let her know every time you need to pee.

But there’s a deeper idea that we need to explore. We have many values, many beliefs, many ideals. Or, at least, we have several. And they can conflict with each other. Life is complicated. You can value honesty and transparency but also value kindness. So what do you do when what you believe to be the truth would hurt someone were it revealed? It’s not clear what the authentic action is here.

Authenticity isn’t as simple as Adam would have you believe. Because our values, beliefs, ideals and principles often conflict, authenticity isn’t about whether you reveal them or not. It’s about whether or not you are faithful to the complex mix of convictions that is your true self. That is, because the self is a gestalt phenomenon, authenticity is also a gestalt phenomenon.

Let’s come back to Adam’s definition of authenticity and see if we can improve it. I agree with Adam that authenticity is about the congruence between something in a person’s inner life and that person’s behavior. But Adam’s definition lends itself easily to absurdity because of the way he wrote it. It requires that you express every belief, lest there be a gap between “what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world”. It eliminates the possibility for diplomacy, for the white lies that are sometimes necessary to maintain a relationship or for biding your time until the right moment to speak. I think the definition of authenticity must respect the holistic nature of the self and the complexities of the human experience. I might define authenticity as “the congruence between one’s fundamental convictions and the way one lives one’s life”.

Ultimately, when we say we want people to be authentic, it means we want them to have a core set of values, beliefs, ideals and principles that is more important to them than their personal interest. We want them to be willing to take an unpopular stand if that’s what it takes, and not just say what’s expedient in the moment. We want them to stand up for their convictions even if it means they will suffer a negative consequence. We want people to be authentic because we believe that human life is about the pursuit of values, not the pursuit of value.

That aspiration is neither simple nor simplistic. People who value authenticity recognize the complexity of life and the need for self-monitoring. We don’t see those as in conflict. On the contrary, we see self-monitoring as an important part of authenticity. Healthy normal people manage how they present their self to others. The key lies in the motivation. Authentic people manage their self-presentation in an effort to be their true self. They understand that because life is complex, if they don’t manage their self-presentation they will end up acting out their fleeting impulses and conflicts instead of being faithful to their core convictions. Inauthentic people, on the other hand, manage their self-presentation for utilitarian purposes only. They’re trying to achieve a goal or complete a task. Having accomplished their task, they move on to the next and nothing stays consistent other than their self-interest. They have no core. To them it’s all about winning the deal. Or maybe just winning an hour in bed with that editor. This is why we don’t like phonies. Even if they flatter us today, somehow we know over the long run they’re out to screw us.

Which brings me to my final point, about the social value of authenticity.

The reason we value authenticity sits within a complex web of social values. We value authenticity because we don’t want to be hoodwinked, ripped off or conned. But we also have other values and interests as individuals and as a society. We want to be loved, we want to be respected, we want to be cared for. And that’s why authenticity isn’t an unmitigated good, it is but one good among many. Not only do personal values sometimes compete, but societal values compete. So if you tell a new mother that her baby is cute and we know you’re lying, we don’t judge you harshly. In fact, we judge you harshly for telling her the truth because it serves no purpose other than to hurt her. It’s why we expect people to tell their young children untruths when they just aren’t ready to handle the truth. And it’s why we accept the fact that people will say things to others who are experiencing moments of overwhelming pain, grief or loss that they wouldn’t say to them at other times. Because in that moment what we value is not authenticity, but rather wellbeing and comity.

To understand authenticity, we have to consider it within the context of a social system and see it not as an end but as a means. Like individuals, societies are self-preservationist. They continue to function by preserving healthy social bonds. If people can be fake and phony then it’s hard to have a functioning society because we never know where others stand or when they’re telling us the truth. But that doesn’t mean we want constant honesty either. There are other forces that can break social bonds. If people are cruel to each other, if they don’t care about, respect, and love others, then we also can’t have a functioning society. So society seeks to balance these different values, not to sacrifice one for the other.

Life is complex. And as goes life, so goes authenticity.

As for me, I’ll continue to draw inspiration from the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”