On Being Authentic

What does it mean to be authentic?

Okay, all you eye-rollers, cut it out.

Seriously, what does it mean to be authentic, and why has it become such a flash point in public discourse?

This word, authentic, either resonates or repulses–there’s no neutral response.

Just a year ago, two heavy-weights in the personal growth arena got into it over whether or not you can be “too authentic.”

Okay, so maybe that’s an oversimplification, but they did. Get into it, that is.

In the blue corner, you have Adam Grant–Wharton Professor, best-selling author of Originals, Give and Take, and his most recent collaboration with Sheryl Sandberg, Option B.

And in the red corner, you have Brene Brown – University of Houston Professor, best-selling author of Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and the most recent, Braving the Wilderness.

A fair match all things considered, especially if you un-consider the behemoth sitting on the red end of the teeter-totter–Oprah.

Yes, Oprah. The very same Oprah that put the likes of Eckhart Tolle and James Frey on the map. Yeah, that Oprah.

In fact, this is the very Oprah that provided the spark for the feud in the first place.

Go ahead, pull up a chair.


In June of 2016, Adam Grant wrote an article entitled, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.”

Now on the face of it, he didn’t really do anything wrong, or at least not anything any (many) other authors have already done, which is to leverage the name of a famous person to sell copy.

Big deal.

But here’s where it gets messy.

In making his point, Grant makes the mistake of conflating being authentic with somehow being duplicitous. Here’s what he wrote: “Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world.”

Okay, so that was mistake number one. Authenticity does not, in fact, mean (or even require) that one must erase the gap between what one believes and what one reveals.

But then he goes on to make mistake number two, which is to drag Brene Brown into it by quoting her definition of authenticity as being “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Big Mistake.

Brene Brown has made a career of encouraging people to be brave and vulnerable and, yes, authentic.

Now why do you want to go and pick a fight with someone like that? Someone whose website bio consists of three words: Researcher. Storyteller. Texan.

Yeah, Texan.

Also, he was being cavalier. Dismissive. As if Oprah, Brene, and all the rest of that ilk (Women? Self-help authors?) were not worthy of being taken seriously.*

There’s more to the article, of course, and you can read it here, but it was, nevertheless, pat (at best) and even wrong in some places.

He writes:
How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait called self-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone . . . . But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances.

Now hold on a minute.

The way he defines high and low self-monitors suggests that high self-monitors constantly censor themselves, whereas low self-monitors have pretty much no filter. And by associating authenticity with self-monitoring, he’s suggesting that true authenticity correlates with no filter.

Am I reading this wrong?

I hope so. Because I don’t see much connection between authentic people and their (non)ability to filter what they are thinking in order to meet social conventions.

Neither does Brene, apparently.

In a rather firmly worded response to his article, Brene assures us that authenticity is not the ” mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking regardless of how your words affect other people.” Rather, it is the “courage to be imperfect, vulnerable, and set boundaries.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit different from the Forrest Gump version of authenticity, don’t you think?

Brown goes on to say later her in response that
authenticity requires almost constant vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It also means staying mindful about our intentions. Real authenticity actually requires major self-monitoring and isn’t, as Grant proposes, the lack of self-monitoring. In fact, setting boundaries is, by definition, self-monitoring – it’s thinking about what you’re sharing, why you’re sharing it, and with whom you should be sharing it.

So more filter, not less filter.

Then Grant takes a further swipe at authenticity because, according to him, it “presupposes that there is a true self, a bedrock to our personalities,” which (and here he cites another researcher, Carol Dweck) is not true because we can, in fact, shift our mindsets from a fixed one to a growth one.

Woah, woah, woah, hold on a minute. Aren’t we taking disparate theories (behavior theory, personality theory, mindset theory) and dumping them all together (like a load of whites and coloreds) until they come out . . . pink?

And is pink even a color? (That’s a debate for another day. You can read about it here.)

But I digress.

Adam, you’re killing me.

And then he really loses it. He says that instead of authenticity, we should be striving for sincerity.


Yeah, sincerity.

He writes:
Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them, [Lionel] 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.

What a load of poppycock!

Now we should be sincere not authentic?

Talk about gerrymandering the English language! And to what end? A publication in the New York Times?


On second thought, I’m going to crosslink the heck out of this article on the off chance that The Times is paying attention.

Oprah! Brene Brown! Adam Grant! Trump! Powerball! Walmart! . . . Walmart?

And on this happy and authentic (yes, I’ll do whatever it takes) note, I’ll say goodbye.

For now.

Until I can be more sincere.


*By the way, the irony of “using” women to earn points while at the same time trying to score points off them does not escape me.








Categories: Reflections

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2 replies

  1. So, being confused worrying that I had somehow, really and truly, fucked up my understanding and definition of authenticity for a REALLY long time, I went to good old dictionary.com aaaannnnnndddd;

    [aw-then-tis-i-tee, aw-thuh n-]
    Spell Syllables
    Examples Word Origin
    See more synonyms on Thesaurus.com
    the quality of being authentic; genuineness.

    Hmmm, Okay, on the right track, but perhaps genuineness had escaped me soooooo;

    Spell Syllables
    Synonyms Examples Word Origin
    See more synonyms on Thesaurus.com
    possessing the claimed or attributed character, quality, or origin; not counterfeit; authentic; real:
    genuine sympathy; a genuine antique.
    properly so called:
    a genuine case of smallpox.
    free from pretense, affectation, or hypocrisy; sincere:
    a genuine person.

    Yep, these are the definitions I’ve based my beliefs on. So, I say to Adam Grant with no small degree of authenticity (and, perhaps, perhaps, some low self-monitoring), “WTF are you talking about?”

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