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Is "Be Yourself" Bad Advice?

A bestselling psychologist says, "Nobody wants to see your true self."

iStock Photo ©elwynn1130
Source: iStock Photo ©elwynn1130

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” —C.G. Jung

Bestselling author Adam Grant is a top-rated professor at Wharton. He regularly speaks in front of large audiences, and he writes some of the most compelling (and at times counterintuitive) articles in some of the best publications in the country.

Yet, Grant calls himself “an introvert.” Recently, the New York Times Sunday Review published his article, "Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice."

Before his first performance on the TED main stage, he writes, he was given that terrible advice over and over. The advice was terrible, he claims, because if he were to be “himself,” he would never overcome his inability as an introvert to confront uncomfortable situations, such as speaking in front of large groups.

He writes,

“We are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love, and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world. As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is ‘the choice to let our true selves be seen.’”

He continues,

“But, for most people, ‘be yourself’ is actually terrible advice… Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”

Readers immediately questioned his conclusions—and for a good reason.

Contrary to what Grant appears to be suggesting, being authentic does not have to mean being a slave to your inner life, acting on every impulse, sharing every feeling you have, or not caring what impact you have on others. As author Carol Liebeau says, “Being authentic does not mean saying out loud every thought that comes into your head.”

When I was living in Los Angeles in the early '90s during the height of the “authenticity” pop-psychology movement, a distraught woman whose boyfriend had just ended their relationship asked her friend to accompany her to retrieve her things from an apartment that, until that day, she had shared with her now ex-boyfriend. Her friend, who clearly preferred to do something else that day, replied, “I’m going to be authentic and say no. I just have to be true to myself and say no—for me.”

That is an example of (among other things) a lack of what Grant calls “self-monitoring”—the sharing of “thoughts and feelings,” which Grant suggests “are better left unspoken.” But is that really an example of “authenticity”?

I think the answer is a clear “no.”

There is, however, a kind of authenticity toward which we could all strive—the kind of authenticity that entails choosing to be the “you” that you envision being. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should try to be someone else. But if we never consciously choose who we want to be, to what “self” will we be “true”?

Here’s the rub: We have no idea what we mean when we talk about a “true self.” So what are we talking about when we talk about being “yourself,” “authenticity,” or what Grant calls “authentic self-expression”?

It is currently estimated that 40 to 60 percent of personality is biologically based[1], and the balance is due to cultural and other experiential elements. In other words, the “self” is a highly complex array of one’s innate perspectives and responses combined with a host of one’s acquired beliefs, values, and actions.

A few years ago, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and I designed and implemented a pilot study to investigate the role of biological personality temperament in leadership decision-making. Our participants completed the Fisher Temperament Scale to determine which of four biologically-based styles of thinking and behaving they primarily expressed, and answered three leadership decision-making questions using the Paresky-Fisher Leadership Questionnaire.

We hypothesized that individuals most expressive of each of these four core leadership styles would select responses that correlated with their biological leadership temperaments.

Our results bore out our hypotheses. Participants were likely to choose decision-making strategies consistent with their biological personality temperaments. In other words, when our participants chose what felt “natural” to them (what some people—including Grant—would say was “authentic”), their biological personality temperament (the 40-60 percent of the personality that is biologically based) was predictive.

iStock Photo © Scott Liddell
Source: iStock Photo © Scott Liddell

So what does it mean to be “true to yourself”? To what “self” would you like to be “true”? If you have a biological tendency to be shy, but you want to make a difference in the world, and in order to do so, you need to make presentations to large audiences effectively, do you want to be “true” to A) your biological tendency to be shy, or to B) the difference you want to make in the world? Which “self” is your “authentic self”?

If you choose option B, does that mean it is “inauthentic” for you to become an incredibly good public speaker? This is where Grant and I disagree. He makes a distinction between being “sincere” and being “authentic,” and presumably doing something that feels “out of character” or “unnatural” is exemplary of being inauthentic but sincere. Yet, might not an authentic self be defined as something separate and distinct from mere personality temperament and default character traits?

We tend to believe that we have fixed, concrete personalities or characteristics. “I am shy” or “I am outgoing” become descriptions of what we think are essential elements of who we are—our “true self” or “authentic self.” But there is no fixed essence of who we must be. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found, even the belief that the self is “fixed” limits personal growth.

The foundation of Grant’s argument is that being “yourself” means being true to that fictional, “fixed self.” And that is why his conclusion goes so wrong. The “self” is not immutable, is not fixed, and is up to each of us to create. Choosing who to be is a deeply authentic way to live, while living life on autopilot instead is fundamentally inauthentic.

Despite Grant’s exhortation that “nobody wants to see your true self,” his personal solution to the problem of inauthenticity is, in fact, the very definition of what it means to allow one’s “true self” to be seen. He writes, “I decided to be the person I claimed to be.”

So be yourself. But choose wisely the self you want to be.


[1] Bouchard, T. (1994). Genes, Environment, and Personality. Science, 264, 1700-1701.

Cloninger, R.C., Svrakic, D.M., & Przybeck, T.R. (1993). A psychobiological model of temperament and character. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50, 975-990.

Loehlin, J. C., McCrae, R.R., Costa, P.T., John, O.P. (1998). Heritabilities of common and measure-specific components of the big five personality factors. Journal of Research Personality, 32, 431-453.

Robins, R. W. (2005). The nature of personality: Genes, culture, and national character. Science, 310, 62-63.