“If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and Authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.” —Brené Brown
OK, I’m embarrassed. In preparation for this post, I was searching for brainy quotes on authenticity and came across a full spectrum of pithy comments to profound insights. The most pithy and inauthentic quote on authenticity came from none other than Sarah Huckabee Sanders: “People are just looking for honesty and authenticity more than anything.” Yup, it’s just too bad she can’t find any in her place of employment. But that’s not why I’m embarrassed.
The most profound quote came from Brené Brown whom my daughter has been raving about for years, and yet I never took the time to learn more about her. After I read her quote and listened to her TED talk, I was embarrassed it had taken me so long to check her out. To me, she embodied authenticity and was not just spouting opinions—not another talking head pouring from the empty into the void. She is a Ph.D. researcher who knows how to tell a story. If you are not familiar with her work, don’t hesitate as long as I did to discover her. Over 34 million people have watched her TED talk so you won’t need to feel like you are the only one.
A few of my takeaways from Brené Brown’s talk are: 1) we can’t numb ourselves selectively, i.e. we can’t kill our shame and expect to fully experience joy; 2) we are not perfect and neither are our kids; 3) we pretend to be who we are not, i.e. we have a hard time letting go of who we think we should be instead of just being who we are.
Some of her prescriptions are to make sure the people we love feel seen, to practice gratitude and joy, and to believe we are enough—just as we are.
Those points all sound simple enough, and her stories bring her message alive because she is not afraid to make herself vulnerable—she is authentic.
So began my search for being authentic in an inauthentic world.
The initial trigger for writing this post, however, came from another source. I just finished reading the Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age by Gordon Marino, a Kierkegaard scholar at St. Olaf College in Minnesota who also taught at Harvard and Yale. What fascinated me about the book was his ability to summarize the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Hegel, Husserl and others as they applied to anxiety, depression, despair, death, faith, morality, and love. More importantly, he shared his own struggles with all of these issues in a very authentic way. As Brené Brown would suggest, he made himself vulnerable in order to connect with his audience.
Marino’s book made me think about the connection between authenticity and existentialism.
It seems to me that the link is bound by our wish to transcend social, economic and political pressures in order to achieve authenticity in our lives.
An authentic person is one who strives to write his or her own script independent of contextual pressures.
Authenticity can only be attained by being faithful to the scripts we write for ourselves.
Nietzsche’s famous example of an authentic person was Zarathustra. He writes,
“[W]hen Zarathustra was 30 years old he left his home and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not tire of it. At last a change came over his heart…he stepped before the sun and spoke thus: You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?…Now Zarathustra sits and waits surrounded by old tablets and new tablets half covered with writing. Behold, here is a new tablet—man is something that must be overcome.”
In that short excerpt, Nietzsche captures the challenge of leading an authentic life—we must write our own tablets while being surrounded with old tablets telling us who we ought to be.
Thus, authenticity is the central factor of existentialism.
Even though academic philosophers will hate this, existentialism can be defined in very basic and accessible terms. To me, existentialism is being who you really are in the moment—truly authentic.
The dictionary definition for existentialism is the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining her/his own development through acts of the will. Determining your own development means writing your own script and authentically executing it.
Why am I bothering to bother with these philosophical issues? Am I just playing monkey mind to muddle my own growth? Am I pretending to be someone I’m not?
If I’m being authentic, I have to own the truth that I do a lot of monkey mind and I’m often guilty of Pretending. But I believe the goal of being more authentic in an inauthentic world is worth pursuing.
So, let me share a few perceptions and experiences.
When I was growing up, I used to pretend I didn’t care if someone made fun of me or mocked me because of my Tourette Syndrome.
I developed barriers and buffers to make sure no one could penetrate too deeply.
I came across as very cocky and aloof even though I hungered for stronger connection.
In college, I sought every leadership role I could in order to persuade myself that I was a Big Man on Campus, when, in truth, I felt like a little boy trying to find his way.
I projected confidence even though I felt very insecure. I studied business administration because that was the “tablet” my parents had written for me, but I had no idea who I really was.
Instead of going to the mountain for 10 years to figure it out, I went to Vietnam instead.
As a soldier, I pretended to be brash, bold, and fearless but mostly I was scared. Fortunately, I never had to find out if I could claim the badge of courage in combat, but I sure tried to convince myself I was up to the task if the need ever arose.
When I returned from Vietnam and started working in jails as a rehab counselor, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
Most inmates were highly invested in presenting a bravado, tough-guy image, but behind the facade were children who never felt like they were worth being loved. Most experienced more hits than hugs and came to believe that they were not enough to deserve any better.
Now that I’m working with senior executives in large organizations, I see facades of different shapes, but like the inmates, they are often trying to cover up who they really are or believe themselves to be.
I see a lot of pretending in business: pretending to be smarter than the average bear, pretending to have all the answers, pretending to care about the real needs and well-being of employees but mostly overcome with pressing issues like profits, performance, and promotions.
Most executives have an image of who they think they should be but have little idea who they really are.
Business pressures, and the pursuit of pleasure preclude reflection and reading. Stepping in predominates stepping back. There’s no sitting under the stars for these folks.
So, when I came across Sarah Sanders Huckabee’s quote that people are looking for honesty and authenticity more than anything else, I had to laugh—or sneer if I’m being authentic.
In this world, we see politicians pretending to be Christians while they slash safety nets for the poor. We see business leaders saying people are their most important asset while they continue to expand the gap between executive and worker compensation. And we see ourselves, our friends, and our families pretending to love each other when the connections are broken by protectiveness, pretensions, and political passions.
I wish I could tell this story in a more inspiring and uplifting way, but if I’m being authentic, I have to own feeling a bit discouraged. Reading Brené Brown, however, brightened my outlook. The question she raises in the opening quote made me step back and think.
What are the most pressing issues to me, today, right now? Do they relate to achievement, accumulation, status, or control? Or do they relate to my own sense of worthiness, authenticity, and vulnerability?
Perhaps she may have some guidance for Zarathustra and the rest of humanity on how to write your own tablet for not only overcoming yourself but being yourself.