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Should you “be yourself”?

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By Natalie Jackson

 

 

Should you “be yourself”?

There’s been a lot of talk this week internationally about a really important topic. No, not Brexit (for non-UK readers, this is the UK’s hotly debated potential exit from the European Union and our upcoming referendum on the subject… watch this space)… although our personal traits and values might impact our decision on that too… it’s authenticity.

What is it and should we seek more or less in our lives? There is much debate on this, and the world’s leading researchers and thinkers have differed in their opinions this week. One thing is for sure – it’s a hot topic and one that we’ll surely see more thought and research on in the coming months and years.

My views on this issue are nothing more than that – the opinions of a thirty-something doing her best to figure out what “living authentically” means to her. If you can spare 5 minutes this week I’d highly recommend reading the key articles on this topic published by those better researched and (quite rightly) far more highly regarded than I on this topic. If you have 30 minutes, read around the topic too. It will totally be worth your time and I’d love to hear your take on it. It’s personal. What does being authentic mean to you?

The big debate this week has looked at how we define authenticity, and whether or not it is a good thing in our lives. The big thought leaders in this space, and those who have set out their stalls either side of the line, are Adam Grant and Brené Brown. Both are authors, professors, public speakers and experts in their fields. But both have very different views on authenticity.

The debate started last week, when Adam Grant’s New York Times article proclaimed that

“Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice”.

He begins by telling the story of preparing for his TED talk and being advised to “be himself”. He defines authenticity as “erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world”. He quotes Brené Brown’s work and in particular her definition of authenticity as “the choice to let our true selves be seen”.

Perhaps the most controversial paragraph reads

“If I can be authentic for a moment: 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”.

By way of example Adam Grant references the author A J Jacobs, who spent several weeks being “totally authentic” – by announcing to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informing his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him, informing a friend’s 5 year old that the beetle she was holding was dead and not sleeping, and telling his in laws that their conversations were boring. He apparently concluded that “lies make the world go round”.

Adam Grant’s definition of authenticity seems to involve saying whatever you think, regardless of the person you wish to be and the effect that has on others. For me, this cannot be the authenticity we as a society would hope to live with, and cannot be the authenticity we as people would hope future generations are empowered to live with. If that is what being authentic is, then yes, it is terrible advice. But this isn’t what Brené Brown advocates, and isn’t the kind of authenticity I’d like to see more of. It certainly isn’t the kind of authenticity that lead me to leave a successful legal career to spend last week discussing what “running like a girl” might mean with a group of 7-11 year olds, or striving to empower and inspire them to become the grown ups they want to be, and in doing so make the world a better place. But that’s a different story.

You may consider me naïve, or have had experiences of the world which lead you to a different conclusion. And that is okay. That in itself I think is evidence to support my belief that saying whatever we are thinking irrespective of context and circumstance cannot possibly be authenticity. Or more accurately that forcing our opinions on others, or refusing to accept and celebrate our differences, are somehow side effects of being authentic.

Authenticity for me is very much a positive, but it must also involve the setting of boundaries and a focus inward on becoming the best possible version of ourselves, as opposed to an outward over sharing with others. A search for a more authentic version of ourselves, to me, involves the filtering of those values we hold dear as against our experience of the world – an unpicking of our emotions and a search for self-awareness to understand more about why we act the way we act. This is not a cavalier “act how you feel like it” process. but a calm and considered look inwards at how we can be truer to our beliefs and values, and contribute more positively to our world.

If authenticity were as Adam Grant portrays, it would be possible for a search for a more authentic version of ourselves to result in a version of ourselves limited negatively by our past experiences. Whilst I accept that there may, throughout our lives, be a number of versions of our “authentic selves”, I would question the concept that a search for more authenticity could result in a more negative version, and one which then impacts negatively on others. My definition of authenticity is focused on self-improvement, but this is not the authenticity Adam Grant talks about.

As you may have figured out, Adam Grant’s view of authenticity is not one I share. Brené Brown’s response to his Op Ed gives us an alternative definition of authenticity, and one which – in an empowering and inspiring way – is far closer to the kind of authenticity I hope to emulate, and which I believe will make the world a better place. Her response, “My response to Adam Grant’s New York Times Op/ED: Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice” published within hours of Adam Grant’s original article, reiterates the core of her research and writings on authenticity. She defines this not as involving the verbalisation of whatever random thought enters one’s head, but as

“the courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and to set boundaries”.

This, to me, is a far more appealing definition.

Brené Brown talks of her attempts to put this definition into practice on a daily basis, and of constant vigilance and awareness of the connections between our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. She references the argument put forward by Adam Grant about self-monitoring, and its limitations, but instead advocates self-monitoring as a path to true authenticity – thinking about

“what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it, and with whom you should be sharing it”.

Both articles have sparked fierce debate in the academic and journalistic worlds on the subject of authenticity. They have sparked conversations for me with friends and family and without doubt the debate will continue. Unlike the UK’s Brexit debate it is not one which we are necessarily being called to have an opinion. In the UK this month we have television adverts, posted leaflets and expensive campaigns urging us to pick a side. The authenticity debate is arguably more important. Who we are and how we live may not be a matter for referendum, but it does have a fundamental impact on how we live our lives.

Whatever definition you end up with, it is worth thinking about your views on authenticity, considering the opinions of those who are experts in the field, and assessing whether you are living up to your own definitions. After all, you have no choice but to be yourself, the only choice is what that means to you…

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