Being Authentic – A No Nonsense Guide
When I was 12 years old, alien abductions were the rage. It seemed that everybody was claiming to be abducted. They were in all the newspapers and magazines. Plenty of books were written about them. I picked up a paperback book chronicling one man’s supposed abduction. His was a more friendly abduction apparently. He recounted what the aliens had taught him. One of the lessons was how to make a free energy machine. And you could demonstrate it with a couple carbon zinc batteries. He even provided instructions.
I was enthralled. I sneaked into the basement with a couple batteries, a knife and a hack saw to follow these detailed instructions. If my mom had known I was trying to cut open batteries she would have had a fit. I carefully followed the instructions, cut out the carbon rod and removed the zinc foil. Then I went to the next step, and made an interesting discovery. These detailed instructions made no sense. I could read the words. I could verify the grammar. I could NOT perform the steps. They became nonsense. Needless to say I was pretty disillusioned. No free energy device that day.
That was my first experience with nonsense instructions. Later in life, I started to notice that nonsense instructions are surprisingly common. Often they come as short phrases or imperatives: “Be a man” and its variations, “grow a pair” or “man up”. To be successful, you must “have relentless focus”. “Pay attention in class” and “study hard” might be more familiar to students. Entrepreneurs are advised to “raise the bar”, and even to “fail fast.” Of course, there’s the ever popular “Just do it!” The phrases go on and on. Sometimes they get a little more elaborate. I bought a self-help book that was based entirely on the principle of simply “letting go” of everything that hindered you. Nowhere in the book did it define what it meant to “let go.” (I’m still holding onto my anger about that.)
Nonsense instructions are so common we need a buzzword for them, maybe “null-directives”; instructions or advice that seem logical and precise but in fact are insufficient or nonsense.
There is one particular null-directive that keeps recurring. It comes up when teenagers want to make friends or go on dates. It comes up when people want to make a good impression. It comes up when people go on job interviews or want to give speeches. If you ever wanted to improve your social skills, you’ve probably heard this: “Just be yourself”, or “Be authentic.”
Why do we need to be authentic? As human beings, we tend to be more attracted to authenticity (partly because we see it so seldom nowadays.) Authenticity implies a degree of trustworthiness, or at least a degree of predictability and hence safety. You know and trust there are no motives and behaviors hidden from you; everything is real. Even a real bastard who is authentically a bastard can be predicted and avoided if necessary. On the other hand, a real gentleman who appears inauthentic is a unknown variable. What is real and what is fake with him? He can’t be trusted, even if he appears like a gentleman, because there are things he appears to hiding. Yes, we need to be authentic to establish good relationships, to establish trust, to interact with people on all levels. Be authentic!
“Sandy and Susan Meet at a College Mixer”
Susan- This is the first time I’ve ever been to a college mixer.
Sandy – Me too. I hate them.
Susan – I hate them too.
Sandy – It’s such a phony way of meeting people.
Susan – Everybody puts on an act.
Sandy – So even if you meet somebody, you don’t know who you meet.
Susan – Because you’re meeting the act.
Sandy – That’s right. Not the person.
Susan – I’m not sure I agree.
Sandy – With what?
Susan – With what you said.
Sandy – No, I don’t either.
Susan – You don’t agree with what you said?
Sandy – (pauses) How do you feel about it?
Susan – I think people only like to think they’re putting on an act, but it’s not an act, it’s really them. They think that if it’s an act they feel better, because they think they can always change it.
Sandy – You mean they’re kidding themselves, because it’s not really an act.
Susan – Yes, it is an act, but they’re the act, the act is them.
Sandy – But if it’s them, then how can it be an act?
Susan – Because they’re an act.
Sandy – But they’re also real.
Susan – No.
Sandy – You mean I’m not real?
Susan – No.
Sandy – So I’m an act?
Susan – It’s all right, I’m an act too.
(Dialogue excerpt from the movie, Carnal Knowledge, 1971; written by Jules Fieffer; directed by Mike Nichols)
Don’t be an act! Don’t play a role! Just be yourself! That’s all you need. Not only is it important, it sounds so elegant. And it’s so true! The answer is both appealing, logical and easy. How can you NOT be yourself? It’s a free energy machine!
Until you try it. Then you realize you don’t know how to do it. How do you be authentic?
Authenticity is a difficult personal attribute to define. What is authenticity? When confronted with a definition, I like to turn to the dictionary as a starting point. Merriam Webster provides 5 definitions for authentic but the one that best applies to men is probably “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.” A man who is true to his own character is a man who is authentic.
Although it appears we’ve gained a somewhat deeper level of understanding, we’ve simply moved the finish line. Now we need to ask the question, “How do you be true to one’s own personality, spirit or character?”
Instead of moving the finish line, let’s take a detour and use another technique that is very valuable for exploring meaning. When you have difficulty pinning down the meaning of a concept, instead explore the meaning of the opposite. In this case, what is inauthenticity? What is it like to be FALSE to your own personality, spirit or character?
We can turn to another source of inspiration that has already done this for us. At The Art of Charm (theArtOfCharm.com) co-founder Jordan Harbinger has his own advice on being authentic. Harbinger proposes that being authentic involves stripping away everything that makes you inauthentic. Authenticity lies beneath the veneer of inauthenticity. Harbinger compares inauthenticity to a form of “social mask.” Removing the mask reveals the true self. Inauthenticity is the result of applying masks, or filters, to your personality or spirit.
(Update: Jordan has moved on to his own company at jordanharbinger.com, but the authenticity link is still active.)
Harbinger’s social mask concept is very practical, and I’ve found it useful in my own life, but it still doesn’t provide a complete answer to the question above. It does not provide a definition of authenticity, but it does provide us with a metaphorical crowbar to pry apart the concept. What is behind the mask? For that matter, what are the masks we wear? Pry them away from our false selves, and we’ll reveal our true personality, spirit and character.
A mask is a covering that conceals and disguises. It prevents the outside world from seeing in. A mask is generally for the face, but it can apply to any part of the person. A mask can also shield and protect, to prevent damage to something sensitive underneath. A medical mask shields and protects the wearer from contamination coming in (and others from contamination being exhaled.) A mask can act as a filter.
Our masks can take many forms. We might wear a mask to hide our identity. We might also wear a mask to conceal and disguise aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of and don’t want others to see. A mask might protect us from damage. A mask might prevent us from exposing ourselves.
We can look at these examples and see a common theme among them; a mask protects us by being a barrier between the outside world and some aspects of ourselves that can be harmed. Those protected aspects are our vulnerabilities. Removing the mask exposes the vulnerabilities. In one way of thinking, authenticity is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Underneath the mask might be our shame. Underneath the mask we might find our sensitivities, even our pains. Underneath the mask we might find our faults and flaws. These are all things that make us vulnerable, so removing the mask requires a certain amount of courage.
Most of the time we don’t even realize we are wearing a mask. Many people have been wearing it so long, “they’re the act (or mask); the act is them.” How do we find those masks and be authentic? The trick to being authentic is to identify when we are approaching the world from behind a protective mask, or when we are protecting ourself from being vulnerable. With a little introspection, it turns out that it’s not that hard.
The aspect of our personality that is hidden behind our masks or filters is our authentic self. If we desire to be authentic, we need to be aware of when we turn on our filters, and see what’s behind the mask. To do that, we need to identify the contradictions between what we want and desire, and what we tell ourselves that stop us from getting that. If you’re killing yourself in a dead-end job and desperately want out, what stories are you telling yourself that prevent you from doing so? If you want to ask a girl on a date, what contradictions and roadblocks do you put into place to prevent yourself? Identifying the contradictions is the first step.
Here’s a very simple example. A few days ago I was planning to head over to the art district to see an Improv show. I was actually looking forward to seeing it again, but then I started to find reasons to not go. The floor is concrete, which is hard on my knees. The chairs are low and flimsy and uncomfortable. I made excuses to not go. I turned on my filters. On one side of the filter was the authentic me, which wanted to laugh and have a good time. On the other side was the inauthentic me, the part that was stopping me. I put on some masks to protect my vulnerabilities and filter my behavior.
The second step is to examine what those vulnerabilities are. What are we protecting with the masks we wear, or the roadblocks we set to prevent our behavior? In my case, I was protecting myself from confronting my health and weight and fear of pain and embarrassment. If I were authentic, I would have been out laughing and having a good time, regardless of my fear of painful knees or my fear of a folding chair collapsing under my weight. My fears were my masks, and they protected me from being vulnerable. My enjoyment of live improv comedy was more in line with my authentic self.
Our authentic selves exist amidst our vulnerabilities and our faults. Our authentic selves are the aspects of our personalities, spirit and character that are freed when we have the courage to be vulnerable. In order to be authentic, we need to bring our faults out from behind the masks and expose them to the light of day. The willingness, the courage, to expose our faults is part of what makes us authentic.
Not all contradictions are hiding your authentic self. I would really like to buy a BMW i8, but signing a loan for a car costing $150,000 (or more) is a terrible idea in my financial circumstances. (I’m not one of those millionaire blogging gurus, at least not yet.) The roadblock in this case is simply the very real delay in getting my finances in order. This doesn’t change my underlying spirit, that is, desiring a BMW i8.
On the other hand, I could contradict myself in another less realistic way. I could tell myself that wanting a BMW i8 is foolish, and that I’ll never have the money to get one. If somebody was to ask me what kind of car I would like, I might not even acknowledge the BMW i8 for fear of them laughing. I could have put on a simple mask to protect myself from ridicule for my desire.
The third step is to admit these vulnerabilities and bring them to light. Exposing the vulnerabilities to ourselves allows us to evaluate where our faults and weaknesses are. You can’t improve until you first understand the parts of yourself that need to grow. Although knowing my finances don’t support owning a BMW i8 doesn’t qualify as a fear or much of a mask in this case, I know I could work on improving my finances. On the other hand, a fear of mine might be to admit my grandiose dreams to other people. By acknowledging that fear, I can definitely improve my authenticity by learning to dream big openly. Nowadays, I still tell people I want a BMW i8; I acknowledge that part of my personality, even if other people would laugh at the idea.
Admitting our vulnerabilities has another benefit. Often the faults and vulnerabilities are not nearly as big as we imagine them to be. Being ridiculed for dreaming big really is not bad at all. In fact, it can be entertaining to listen to other people exposes their prejudices about wealth and commercialism. Worrying about my bad knees is not a big issue either. I’ve never had any bad experiences from being on crutches while my knees acted up. Admitting these vulnerabilities shows them to be no big deals after all and it is easier to muster up the courage to admit them.
Once we’ve accepted and evaluated our vulnerabilities, it’s a lot easier to take the final step. Accept that these vulnerabilities are part of your hidden character, spirit or personality. If they need to be improved, then you can do so. Furthermore, you can do so with the help of others. When the time comes, be willing to share select vulnerabilities with others, and then you’ll finally be authentic.
So what is authenticity? I believe authenticity is the courageous act of accepting our faults and vulnerabilities and sharing those with others. When you accept and share your faults, you are an open book with nothing to hide.
It turns out that this time there are some logical steps to being authentic. First, examine the contradictions in your life to see what masks you are wearing, or how you are filtering yourself. Second, determine what vulnerabilities are behind the masks; what do you fear? Third, find the courage to admit to these vulnerabilities and expose them to the light of day. Next, accept these vulnerabilities as aspects of your personality that you can work on and change until they are no longer limiting your life.
It turns out in the world of authenticity, there are steps to achieve the free energy machine.