The Challenge of Being Authentic is not about How to Act, but about How not to.

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on April 3
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Most readers will have likely already encountered a number of articles on the importance of authentic branding--not to mention the various complexities of the concept.  Visitors to this site will in fact find many articles on the topic.  

For all its relevance to effective branding, the challenge of authenticity is , however, above all, personal.  Turn back the dials, and my guess is that you'll find that all these concerns over authenticity speak to more fundamental questions regarding how one might live.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Herminia Ibarra in fact argues that the danger of authenticity is that it entails a resitance to personal change and growth. The further you dig into the concept of authenticity, the more problematic the term becomes.  (See, for instance, my piece on the often-overlooked irony at work in Shakespeare's popular quote, "To thine own self be true.")   So I believe Ibarra's article inspires necessary reflection.  In what follows, I speak to what Ibarra calls the "Paradox of Authenticity," though my discussion moves in a slightly more personal direction.

Most of us try to muddle through life as best we can, willing to change in certain respects, resisting change in others. It is this resistance to change that is one of the hallmarks of our social lives. In-and-as the public version of ourselves, we have a tendency to blindly follow the leader, or to unquestioningly get in line. And yet, in the end, we always pay a price if we continue to live a life that is inwardly dictated by others, if we remain so mesmerized by our fear of the unknown that we no longer have a clue as to what it is that we really want out of life. But I would argue that the pain of awakening to the limits of our more conventional public selves is crucial, at least if it helps us to cross some inner threshold so that we can begin to long for something more. 

Unfortunately, in our attempts to understand ourselves, we must often pass through a twisting labyrinth of funhouse mirrors. We perhaps think that we are becoming more spontaneous and free, only to discover that we have just been impulsive and stupid. We perhaps fight against passive acquiescence to social norms, only to discover that we are merely playing out its perverse flip side in the form of our knee-jerk rebellion against authority. Genuine authenticity does not come from an arbitrary effort of will or some strained insistence on being different. Authenticity requires more than some forced performance of non-conformity. Alternatively, the self-conscious effort to “be oneself" can inspire anxiety and self-judgment—deeply engrained emotional patterns and habits that are, themselves, 

I have no easy advice on how to come in touch, once and for all, with some truer dimension of your self. I do, however, believe that this “me” is what is undoubtedly genuinely real in all of us. Yet this “me” is also what cannot be pinned down, cannot be analyzed or dissected. For my part, I long ago gave up the naive and reductive task of trying to articulate some singular or definite sense of an authentic “me.” In my younger, angstier teen years, my self-conscious attempts to grasp some actual “”inner self” only led to the sense that there was in fact no “it” to find, no solid, unchanging essence of “me-ness” hidden deep within. The world around me encouraged a path to identity rooted in “self-discovery,” as if the self were already somehow buried deep within, like buried treasure, simply waiting to be found. My own experience never confirmed the model of self as an object of discovery. As soon as I came upon myself, it seemed as if I were already gone. As soon as I turned around to see myself, it seemed I had already and disappeared. 

And yet, every once in a while, I believe we experience these rare, precious moments when we are given a taste of the authenticity we are longing for, a quick glimpse into our selves; but this self is not so much discovered as set free in a state of creativity. The authentic self is not a definite “thing,” but an experience.

But how, specifically, do we recognize, let alone learn from these momentary experience of self? How do we cultivate an experience of authenticity? More specifically, how do we cultivate an experience of self when the “effort” seems to preclude authenticity? How do we reconcile the contradiction of “acting naturally”? For me, a good beginning, has been to pay attention to how I feel when it seems, at least in retrospect, that I have gone in the opposite direction, when I am living my life in a way that seems contrary to some deeply-rooted sense of myself. It’s not enough to “know thyself.” You must stand as your own lifeguard; keep a careful watch for those times when you find yourself drawn or driven adrift by anxiety, overly concerned with what others think of you, or seeking to match yourself to some invisible social rules and expectations. In those moments, shift your orientation—inward, away from the chaotic movement of outward events; pause; take some deep breaths and settle down into an experience of yourself, bit by bit. 

Something almost magical often happens when we allow ourselves to let go of fretting and self-judgment, when we sink below the obsessive and self-propelled tapes of anxiety or regret or anger that might be playing in our minds, when we simply ground ourselves to our bodily sensations and open up. Such moments have always brought me a sense of solidity and ease, a feeling that I am rooted in a level of experience that is, somehow, authentically “me.” 

Truly powerful brands require the nuance of a uniquely style brand voice.  Crafting this voice requires the ability to balance technical and creative writing.  To learn more, feel free to get in touch.  Or vist the MarkteScale website for insights into creative and technical writing.

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Topics: Thought Leadership, B2B Brand Writing, B2B Markets

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