THE DOWNSIDE OF AUTHENTICITY
Todd Dewett | August 19, 2019
[This is part four of a five-part series addressing aspects of authenticity.]
Authenticity is about filtering less, posturing less, being more open about your thoughts and beliefs, and more uncensored in how you look and behave. People crave it. The concept is spreading. As a bona fide authenticity ambassador, that makes me happy – but, I have to be honest – there is a downside to the concept.
Specifically, there are two. First, we face the problem of variety. In the absence of authenticity, when simple conformity dominates, people are easy to process. They look similar, speak in a similar fashion, and their behaviors fall within a well-defined range. We are bland potatoes. Even though no one really likes bland potatoes, we find them easy to eat. No spice, no heat, no problem.
With authenticity, we have more variety. The range of things we see and hear widens, increasing the odds that we’ll see or hear something we don’t like. Yesterday was bland, but today one person dumps cayenne pepper on their potatoes. Another person baked their potatoes twice. Yet another peeled the skin off of their potato! Eating potatoes just became weird.
Let’s be honest. Humans are far from perfect. We are all flawed. We all have personality quirks and behavioral tendencies that others don’t enjoy. We’re too blunt, we love salty language – who knows! Authenticity is great, but, on the other hand, no one enjoys an authentic jerk, complainer, or narcissistic self-promoter. The downside is real.
The second part of the downside concerns the energy we expend at work. In most environments, we waste a ton of energy trying to mold how we are perceived so as not to offend others or fall out of favor. In a more authentic environment, we still face something similar: the need to expend energy wondering if we’re being acceptably authentic. So, you’re still using energy to manage impressions!
Let’s address both issues, starting with the fact that we sometimes encounter authentically uninteresting or unfun people.
First, realize that you are embracing the best option. Authenticity beats bland conformity. You get to act less, have better knowledge of who people are, and enjoy better relationships. That makes it worth putting up with a few weirdos.
Next, actively look for something you like in the person you otherwise find problematic. That might be confidence, work ethic, or a particular skill. They are not completely bad just as you are not completely good. Allow that recognition to temper your reaction to them.
Third, admit you’re hilariously imperfect. Admit that you don’t fully realize the particular way you’re imperfect. Others do. Like it or not, they see you differently than you see yourself. Strong self-awareness helps, but there is always a gap. Somewhere around you right now, someone is merely tolerating you. So, lighten up.
Finally, you have the option to shift your tribe. If needed, and if possible, the current group with whom you regularly associate can change. A person might need to be removed, not invited, or somehow avoided. A tough choice for sure, but sometimes it’s necessary if you value minimizing stress and being happy.
The second issue concerns the need to use energy trying to understand how you’re being perceived. I admit that it’s unavoidable for a thoughtful person, but you can minimize your need to worry about it by following these guidelines.
First, only put one toe in the water. In each new relationship or group, start with small deviations first. Pull back the proverbial curtain only a little. Don’t smother your potato in sriracha or chimichurri. Start with a little butter or cheddar. When people get used to it, then grab the chimichurri.
Next, avoid touchy or divisive topics. It’s okay to tell the team you are a sneaker collector with over fifty pairs of Air Jordans. It is not acceptable to tell them you support capital punishment and mandatory gun training for all citizens. Last but not least, resist talking about politics or religion outside of designated safe areas.
It’s also important to recognize when your authenticity might be causing a problem. Look for changing patterns of behavior directed at you (e.g., a person no longer stops by or no longer addresses a certain topic with you) and obvious adverse reactions. In either case, inquire kindly, seek to understand, and assure them you mean no offense. Then monitor a bit more strongly moving forward.
Last tip – you need good feedback! Since others don’t see you as you see yourself, once or twice each year you need a friend or colleague to speak to you candidly about what they see. Not how they feel about you and your means of being expressive, but how they observe others reacting to you. Sometimes what you feel is authentic might seem problematic to others.
In the end, authenticity and “being real” matter a great deal. The downside is real too, but it’s not so big a burden that you should avoid living authentically. Start slow, be positive, and be sure you find ways to better understand how others perceive you. When people see you being thoughtful in this manner, they too will begin to embrace a little more thoughtful authenticity.