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What Does It Mean To Be “Authentic”

by David Brock on February 8th, 2020

I was recently have a discussion with someone. It spanned some comments on LinkedIn and private discussions by email. I had reacted to something he had posted, suggesting that while his premise was very good in many circumstances, that there might be a number where very different approaches might be applied.

We wandered in the conversation, he kept presenting data to support his argument, me responding, “Yes, and there is more….”

At one point, perhaps out of frustration, he said:

“It’s really important to note I share my experience vs. it’s always this way in every case – I give my authentic truth”

Which got me to thinking, “What is authenticity?” Is it sharing and being true to our experience? Is it something else?

Authenticity seems to be hot right, now. I see it in the literature and news nearly every day. I don’t recall reading or hearing people talk much about authenticity 10-20-30 years ago, or even when I read about history. I don’t know if that means we were inauthentic then. Most of the historical references tend to refer to physical objects, as in “Was the art piece authentic or forged.”

Authenticity is one of those words, I suspect it’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder. One can look it up in the dictionary, here are a couple of perspectives:

Authenticity is about presence, living in the moment with conviction and confidence and staying true to yourself. … Everyone wants to be authentic. Though the people who preach its virtue often don’t understand exactly what the word meansAuthentic is defined as: “not false or copied; genuine; real.”

Not false or imitation REALACTUAL “an authentic cockney accent”

True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character is sincere and authentic with no pretensions.

Somehow authenticity seems to have something to do with our values, beliefs and being true to them.

But too often, we seem to be “weaponizing” the concept of authenticity. There are implicit, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I’m representing my authentic self.” Or, implicitly, “I’m good and you are bad.”

Alternatively, authenticity is used as an excuse for all types of behaviors, good or bad. Stated differently, “I gotta be me….” (Thank you Sammy Davis, Jr.)

As we look at the spectacle of the Presidential impeachment, I’m sure none of the parties involved felt they were being inauthentic, regardless of their position, yet we seem further polarized and increasingly tribal.

Which also brings us to the idea of authenticity and the truth. In the sense of real objects, authenticity as applied to real and fake, makes sense. But what does authenticity mean to ideas and experience. Again, looking at the impeachment, there are lots of conflicting ideas and experience, yet I believe each were probably authentic. And no one seemed to be searching for any kind of truth–if any kind of truth existed or was meaningful.

I think our interpretations of authenticity often lead us to closed mindsets. Yet we know to learn, grow, progress as individuals, organizations, and peoples, we should have open mindsets.

I worry, that unless provoked, as in this conversation, I never really think about authenticity. I never think about whether I’m being authentic or not. I never think about whether the person I am interacting with is authentic or not.

I have values and principles that make me, me. Among those values are honesty, caring, a sense of ethics and integrity, making a difference, meeting my commitments, being open, constantly learning/growing, owning my mistakes, forgiveness, and not taking myself too seriously. And I hope I demonstrate those in my behaviors and interactions with others.

I don’t know that I’m being authentic or not. I’ve never considered the question. To be honest, it’s not an important question to me.

But authenticity seems to dominate a lot of our conversation and our thinking. What am I missing?

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4 Comments
  1. You know, this is an interesting question.

    I know what you mean about authenticity getting weaponized; a cudgel to be waved about, a thinly veiled accusation (or a defense) against a perceived offense. Often, in reaction to a perfectly valid question or challenge to a point of view.

    I’m reminded of a similar response to the same issue around empowerment:

    Person A: We really need to do a better job of empowering everyone.
    Person B: No. If you empower stupid, you get stupid squared.

    In other words, if someone says “I’m being authentic,” it just means “honest I’m not lying! And I’m really heated up about this issue!” (To the first, ‘the lady doth protest too much;’ to the second, we probably already got that.

    I also think that “I’m authentic” is like saying “I’m your trusted advisor.” It’s not something you should say about yourself, though it is high praise if someone else says it about you.

    At its best, “He’s really being authentic” means “What he just said clearly comes from the heart, and is in tune with a very basic level of who he is.”

    At the risk of using a political example, I believe very little of what Trump says. But when he says, “I don’t believe folks who say they’re praying for me,” I have a sense he’s being authentic. He truly does not believe in the existence of folks who might seriously pray for their ‘enemies,’ any more than he believes in the existence of fairies.

    In that case, to say he’s being ‘authentic’ means it connects with a lot of other dots that we have about who he is, and rings true.

    But back to your cynical take on it: I think it is indeed being weaponized. Consider all the communications folks who say “you should be authentic,” presumably because that way people are more likely to believe you.

    I think that’s not quite the right reason to be authentic. To risk another example, Romney’s recent speech in the senate struck me as highly authentic. And he did it simply to explain his motivations for a very important decision.

    That’s an important time to search one’s soul and check one’s motives, and to explain as clearly as possible to his stakeholders just what they are.

    The case for authenticity in that sense is more grounded in ethics than it is in effective communications, and we cheapen it by justifying it in terms like efficiency or credibility.

  2. Tim Ohai permalink

    Nailed it, again.

    On one hand, authenticity lends itself to credibility – which has always been essential to
    sales.

    On the other hand, to lead discussions with “I feel” instead of “I think” is a telling sign that what the person is about to say may not have much weight behind it. In other words, we value subjective feeling over objective truth.

    There is no “my truth.” There is just truth.

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