In Defense of Authenticity and Being Yourself

Honesty is a virtue that has to be practiced with discretion, not by rules.

Posted Jun 05, 2016

In a recent New York Times article, best-selling author and professor Adam Grant argues against the current fascination with authenticity and “being yourself,” and instead recommends self-monitoring and sincerity in order to succeed in your professional and personal lives. I would tend to agree—if I understood these concepts in the simplistic and extreme ways they are often presented, which make them seem mutually exclusive.

But these concepts are much richer and more nuanced, and the way we should use them in our lives is not as clear-cut as Grant claims. In this post, I will present these concepts as the nuanced virtues they are, possessing a “golden mean” or a sweet spot between two extremes, which is very sensitive to context and circumstance, and renders them all important parts of who we are.

How does Grant present authenticity and “being yourself”? He writes that:

A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.

“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

Grant leads off that anecdote by saying that “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,” and follows it by discussing self-monitoring, in which a person watches what she says out of sensitivity to others.

But none of this is inconsistent with authenticity. Authenticity is a much more general concept, having nothing to do with how many of your thoughts and feelings you express, but whether your words and actions correspond to who you are or who you want to be. What he and Jacobs are proposing as authenticity is actually extreme and foolish forthrightness, which frankly has nothing to do with authenticity (unless a person is authentically extremely forthright!). And what Jacobs refers to as deceit is more like commonsense discretion, keeping some thoughts and feelings to yourself, with no actual intent to deceive. These are simplistically extreme ways to think of concepts that are nuanced and complex (and, with respect to deceit, implicitly normative), and paint a distorted picture of what are rich and important ideas.

Grant is correct when he says no one wants to hear every thought in your head. Of course they don't! But this observation speaks only against extreme forthrightness, not authenticity, and forthrightness is the extreme version of honesty that a virtue-oriented focus cautions against. Honesty and discretion are twin virtues that work together while they moderate each other. You don’t want to be dishonest (or truly deceitful) but neither do you want to be completely forthright. Instead, there is what Aristotle called a "golden mean," an optimal level of honesty and discretion that depends on context and circumstance.

Like Grant acknowledges, it makes sense to be more open and relaxed with a romantic partner than with your supervisor at work. But this demonstrates that simple rules don’t apply, and practical wisdom, borne of experience, is needed; you need to develop a feel for how honest and forthright to be in different situations with different people at different times. In terms of self-monitoring too, there is an appropriate level of this in different situations: more in work or social situations with strangers or mere acquaintances, and less with close friends and romantic partners. (Family gatherings may fall into either category!)

Another way to think about authenticity is that it has less to do with expressing your true self (to the extent such a thing exists) and more to do with not forcing yourself to be someone else. Of course personality traits and abilities are not fixed, as Grant acknowledges, but I would argue that once again he takes this too far. We may change little by little from day to day, but there are core aspects of our personalities and character that are relatively stable over time and that form the basis for “being yourself” or remaining authentic.

Grant discusses how he, as an introvert, “faked it until he made it” as a public speaker (which he links to "sincerity," which he oddly defines as conforming your inner self to your presentation of it to others). With all due respect, I would interpret this not as changing himself but rather bringing out a dormant aspect of himself that he didn’t know was there. Sometimes people can do that, and that’s great, especially when people realize they have gifts they never recognized.

At other times, however, acting like someone else simply goes against the grain of who we are, which can threaten whatever amount of cohesiveness our selves possess. For instance, I’m an extremely self-monitoring person in almost every situation, and that feels authentic to me (even if not to Jacobs or Grant). I would feel horrible if I forced myself to say whatever was on my mind without considering its impact on others (not that Grant is recommending that), or any other behavior that didn't feel authentic to me. It simply wouldn’t "be" me, whether in terms of who I am or who I want to be.

When they are properly understood in all their nuance and complexity, I support authenticity and being yourself, as opposed to contrived or forced artificiality that is strategically adopted to “get ahead.” Think of it this way: If you do accomplish your goals by forcing yourself to be someone you’re not, who has really succeeded? I think you'd want to know.

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