Offending The Authentic

Warning: The following article may upset those of you who have a shelf-load of self-help books and rely on quirky aphorisms and like to post memes about how awesome life is. I’m pretty sure my admonishment has fangs as I’ve had more than one or two defections in the last week or so. So be it, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

For those of you not glued to your LinkedIn feed this week, you may have missed Brene Brown’s defense of “authenticity” post, in response to Adam Grant’s op-ed piece for the New York Times, in which Grant urges a more introverted approach to “being”. Exciting stuff, especially given the complete lack of any semblance of context or logic by two very popular writers.

I don’t believe I know much about human nature — people are complex, layered and nuanced, so I try not to speculate. I’ve noticed that one of the most positive things that can happen to a human being is when they realize how little they know. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had my share of travails and spent more than the average person’s measure of my time and energy studying human behaviour, psychology, and philosophy. If fact, I have not been doing much else during the past twenty-five years or so. This includes a good deal of time around “spiritual teachers”, gurus, coaches, therapists, shamans, and some con artists too.

First, I believe an “authentic” person doesn’t go around talking about being authentic and certainly doesn’t convert other people into being similarly authentic. That’s called, “being in a cult”. That makes you inauthentic, automatically, or from Southern California, or both.

You’ve never read about Ali, or Hemingway or Freda Kahlo, Margaret Mead or Emilia Earheart blathering about being “real” or authentic, have you? No, you haven’t. Now there exists a cottage industry for teaching people “how to be real”, and this to me, is insipid and somewhat revolting. So first, let me ask the gentle reader a couple of questions.

  • Does this masturbatory fixation with authenticity and feelings tell you something about this country?
  • Does this sort of self-engrossed nonsense not speak to exactly where we are at right now as a people?
  • Does it not alarm anyone that people actually need to be told how to be?

The tit-for-tat between Brene Brown and Adam Gran brings Norman Mailer to mind, (at least for me) whom I’d been reading as of late, reminiscing about Ali in the seventies. I am just old enough to remember the Champ’s fighting style and No’min’s (Ali’s nick for him) fantastic coverage of his highs and lows, especially Ali’s his ceaseless, breathless braggadocio. Guess what? Ali never talked about being authentic. This is 1975 folks. The heavyweight champion of the world was Black and a Muslim. Brother Ali didn’t justify himself to anyone. He was just himself. Mailer wrote about the environment around the Foreman-Ali fight in Zaire, but he easily could be describing world of self-help gurus.

…”Everyone is so f*cking sensitive! No local horror failed to stir its echo a thousand miles away, no sneeze is ever free of the leaf that fell on the other side of the hill”…

If you want to know what authenticity sounds like, read The Fight by Mailer, or even better, read Henry Miller ! How about Anais Nin or Sappho? Go outside and read Ginsberg’s Howl aloud underneath the stars, naked! Whatever you do, stop worrying about being yourself. Let it go. How about some Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Sri Aurobindo, Suzuki Roshi, Meher Baba?

Reading their respective pieces, I couldn’t help but imagine these two self-absorbed “emotional intelligence academic pundits” folding up their resumes into paper airplanes and throwing them at each other. If that image wasn’t amusing enough, I then read Grant’s apology on Brown’s LinkedIn thread and thenBrown’s apology to Grant. What gratuitous ass-kissing! I was waiting for Travis Bradberry to come in with scented hot towels and Deepak Chopra to break out his sitar.

Ok, so what that Adam Grant has the most forced smile I have ever seen short of the wax museum. He’s an introvert, and he’s a Wharton scholar. He is basically a “nice guy”. I am often admonished for saying people are “nice”, evidently this is actually an insult. On the other side, we have Brene Brown. God forbid you ay anything nasty about Brene. Brene is a smart cookie, an astute social worker, and a stand-up comedian. She is big-time. I’ve actually met them both, sort of. I wrote Grant and told him to think about changing his picture, and when I crashed a TED talk and asked Brene a tough question, she looked at me like I had offered her a line of methamphetamine.

Here is the rub, friends.

I don’t “like” self-help jockeys and gurus. I despise the lot of them. My colleague Christopher Helton has warned me off of this stuff, but like too much sugar, I can’t help myself.

If you see Brene speak, she will convert the entire chorus, the choir, and the entire chapel, she’s funny, engaging, humble even. People feel “changed” by the simple notion that are being given permission so “they can be authentic or vulnerable or real”, finally. As if these people are held in emotional-deprivation camps before they got their TED tickets. Friends, if you need to pay a few thousand dollars for someone to tell you ought to be more honest, transparent, vulnerable and real — well, you need more than Brene Brown or Adam Grant. You need a good shot of tequila, a night dancing to James Brown and a good therapist. Preferably in that order.

If you don’t believe me, read about Susan Cain’s piece on Anthony Robbins. If you too get this eerie feeling around certain extroverted speakers, but can’t place it (Is this act or is it real?), then pick up Cain’s work on the power of introverts for a change of pace. Thank God for Susan Cain, by the way. Level-headed, articulate and not self-aggrandizing. Nowhere in her book does she tell introverts to be more “authentic” human beings. Cain simply advise introverts (I am one) to simply spend more time doing what need be done to cultivate the gift of solitude. I can relate, as I am ten miles up a remote dirt road in the High Sierra as I am writing this.

All this blather about being an “authentic self” bugs the living shit out of me, and I’m just going to need to deal with that in my own way. To be fair, Brown does indeed drop some serious truth — particularly about vulnerability, empathy and relationship dynamics, and yes I cringe the whole time I listen to it because she happens to be right about most of it. I just don’t care for how it’s a “fad” to be real. That seems, inauthentic.

On the other side, Grant urges us to “start with our outer selves and to pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.” Grant has got himself a pretty good point here. More palatable, reasonable. In plain English — think before you speak. I learned before my fifth birthday.

I admit that to the chagrin of more than one romantic partner, I tend to be vague, cautious, even judgemental. In other words, normal, as in not perfect. I am trying to figure out where the other person is at, instead of where I am at. That’s evidently a no-no. If it’s not entirely obvious, I do speak my mind when I feel like it’s appropriate. I admit this can be frustrating, but I just need to go at my pace, and I do.

I take issue with people whose “feelings, boundaries, and expectations” become more important than anyone else’s, and then suddenly paramount to reason itself. There is a great beauty in being discreet. Similarly, instead of trying to galvanize all this “authenticity” from the inside out, Adam suggests we “bring the outside in.” Grant’s advice is a bit more gracious than what seems the more attractive option these days, which is to be an entitled cry-baby. You don’t have to look very far to find people who feel “emotionally entitled” either. You can be too authentic no matter what logic Brene Brown uses. When Brown it clear rightthat there is in, fact, a “them” and an “us”. (See below) She is essentially setting up a faulty distinction between extroverts and introverts.

Yet another major huge red flag.

Brene writes: For those of US who practice it every day….(evidently this is opposed to those of us who bury our feelings, eat crow and are terrified of confrontation.) Real authenticity requires major self-monitoring and isn’t, as Grant proposes, the lack of self-monitoring. In fact, setting boundaries is, by definition, self-monitoring — it’s thinking about what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it, and with whom you should be sharing it.

Ok, Brene, how many people do you know that can actually do this? We can all do it in spurts, but no one can do it all the time.

Who do you know that self-monitors and checks every subtle nuance in their emotional life? I know practicing, mendicant, reclusive Buddhist monks who have devoted their entire lives to this process, who find it difficult, so I find it hard to believe that Brown actually believes that most folks are up for the whole emotional processing party while they are holding down jobs, paying bills and wiping snot off their kid’s shirt.

Most of us run in the exact opposite direction she proposes when the emotional temperature goes up. I know I have. Not all the time, but enough. That is exactly why Grant says, “Wait just a minute now”, and bingo, what a surprise! Brene Brown is offended. Grant’s voice rings true. Grant’s admonishment of Brown has it’s root in something very simple and good.

I too believe in respect for others and try to cultivate a sort of ordinary humility around how I express myself. Call me crazy, but I’m not all up in people’s face with my feelings. I’m not perfect by a long shot, and I’m often painfully aware of it. God knows, I can be a real prick at times. Whereas, the many versions of Brene Brown running around in yoga pants and “om” shawls who are into “100% transparency” and “trying to be authentic”, often end up acting and sounding phony, pretentious, and entitled. When you call them out on their shitty behavior they say, “Well, I’m just being authentic to myself”, which is code for f*ck you, I’m me and that’s to bad for you. Being authentic has become a great by-pass for personal responsibility just as much as it has become a moniker for “keeping it real”.

The sad, actual truth is that sometimes people are so self-absorbed with their own pain, that they can’t pull their head out of their emotions for a minute to realize there is another human being in the room. This is exactly why being authentic all the time, doesn’t work. One needs to learn to self-regulate and have discretion. I don’t think Grant is confused about this, but Brown certainly is and tries to back her way out of it with an elaborate description of how to be authentic — -which is really just more self-help bullshit.

I have a feeling we are all becoming a little sick with all of this emotional intelligence, narcissistic propaganda. If you want to get real, just be yourself, and don’t worry about being yourself. I hardly think there is a book to read, or a secret society formula, or a person that is going to get you there.

I can’t help but think of Zen master Dogen’s famous words:

“Drop, dropping it”.

Here’s a bit of what Van the man has to say:

Every second, every minute
It keeps changing to something different
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is
It says it’s non attachment.
Non attachment, non attachment.

I’m in the here and now, and I’m meditating
And still I’m suffering but that’s my problem
Enlightenment, don’t know what it is…

Wake up!


I was born in Boston and have lived on almost every continent, save two. Last time I checked, I was blessed with a long career in strategic communications , and as you can most likely tell, I have exhausted my faculty for what the Shakespeare refers to as “gilding every lily”.

Since 2011, I have developed a relatively large body of non-fiction that covers a wide range of strategic communications issues including international policy and geopolitics, economic development and human interest.

Please feel free to email me

Thanks for reading and in advance, Brene and Adam, it’s not personal and thanks LinkedIn for once again, marginalizing anything “outside the platform”.