Below is an excerpt from a New York Times opinion piece titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice by Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s from 5 June, and in it he discusses the problems with being authentic, the idea of self-monitoring and of internal change based on external experiences.

He writes:

‘If not our authentic selves, what should we be striving to reach? Decades ago, the literary critic Lionel Trilling gave us an answer that sounds very old-fashioned to our authentic ears: sincerity. Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, Trilling urged us to start with our outer selves. Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.

 Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in.’

Read the entire article here.

Born 27 years before Trilling, Martin Buber described a similar dynamic of change regarding bringing the outside in; he spoke about it as the ‘I-Thou’, that real living occurs in the meeting between beings or entities. It is in the exchange between the two (or more), the act of recognition of and interaction with the ‘other’ that creates meaning through the experience of meeting and interacting with others. This is in contrast to the idea of ‘I-It’, where the other is an entity to be acted upon, used and/or disregarded. My apologies to Buber for reducing his concepts to blog-length.

My experience is that being ‘authentic’ is not about (as Freud might say) letting your Id loose, saying whatever comes to mind without a filter, acting upon your whims. Everyone has a family member like this, you walk into a room and they say something like, “Why are you wearing that?” or “You’ve gained a lot of weight!” or “I just had a colonoscopy and that prep—I was on the toilet all night.” This is only part of an authentic self (if there is only one self inside each of us); the heart of the matter for me is what you do with those thoughts and ideas when they come up in you. If you blurt out whatever comes into your head, you are in the ‘I-It’ mindset even though you may care about the person in front of you. “I’m only saying this for his/her own good!” or “I’m just saying what I think” are reasons given for making statements like those above. Actions like this disregard impact on the other in favor of one’s own way of doing things.

And this is why there are laws in the workplace regarding harassment. Because you might think saying something to or about a co-worker is fine because you think it/believe it (or are eager to be perceived as more powerful/able/stronger/better), but the impact the statement or action has upon another may be, in reality, at least detrimental and at worst debilitating to her/his sense of self. This is not being authentic—in reality, it is not taking responsibility for one’s actions, actions that harm others. Hence, it is illegal.

I have been using the word ‘authentic’ to describe the idea of owning what you know and, at the same time, making space for what others know. Sincerity, being free from hypocrisy and deceit, is a big part of this; however, neither sincerity or authenticity, as I have defined it, imply a sense of action between entities or include the creation of a space for safe expression of ideas. They do not require listening, or move one (and hopefully both) to consider how one’s ideas—what you know—link and mesh with what the other knows. If we take a step forward and engage in an ‘I-Thou’ meeting, new ideas and ways forward, greater than the sum of the parts, can emerge, and both entities can be changed.

Maybe we need a new word for this idea, beyond authenticity and sincerity. Authen-thou-cerity? Sinthouthenticity? Given I can’t stand jargon and bandwagons and soundbites—and I’ve already condensed Buber into a paragraph—for now let’s just engage in interactions that include the other as ‘Thou’, and not ‘It’.