The Authenticity Trap
Is your quest for authenticity stifling your success potential?
Recently, I returned to my homeland of England for an event with business mentor Chris Ducker. One of the things I had been looking forward to was a presentation from the man who bought the Book Yourself Solid company from Michael Port, Mr Matthew Kimberly. His presentation offered some entertainment and some controversy in our group as well as some food for thought and I was asked several times for my take. My answer was that I needed to go and think about it, well, write about it as this is often how I formulate what my take is.
What was it that caused the uproar? It was the idea of having a crafted and carefully curated public persona instead of just going out into the world and being authentically you. Basically saying that authenticity is overrated and actually damaging to success. As someone who’s been on team authenticity for quite some time, it was interesting to have my views challenged.
The challenge to my thinking was about the need to become a charismatic figure and that without having a crafted and curated public persona, we risk people ascribing qualities to us that they want to see or think they see, rather than what we want them to see. The argument is that being authentic is risky and uncontrolled and is based on this passage from Robert Greene’s book Mastery.
“It is not generally acknowledged or discussed, but the personality we project to the world plays a substantial role in our success and in our ascension to mastery. Understand: people will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance. If you are not careful and simply assume that it is best to be yourself, they will begin to ascribe to you all kinds of qualities that have little to do with who you are but correspond to what they want to see. Your only protection is to turn this dynamic around by consciously moulding these appearances, creating the image that suits you and controlling people’s judgments. You must see the creation of a persona as a key element in social intelligence.” — Robert Greene, Mastery.
One thing I will say is this, the book is subtitled The Modern Machiavellian. Machiavellianism is one of the dark triad traits, (along with narcissism and psychopathy) which relates specifically to cunning, devious and manipulative behaviours that generally accompany a desire to achieve power and status by any means necessary. So, we’re not talking about being fluffy and empathetic here, although there are other parts of the book where you will see Greene talk about empathy playing an important role in learning and knowledge and also that it is humanising to share some of our flaws from time to time.
I will admit, that I have mixed feelings on this but I may also be much more pragmatic about the true nature of self and personality than most people might be willing to be. None of us is always highly empathetic, I hope. We would struggle to function. We can turn empathy off at times, otherwise, every commercial for a charity appeal and every chugger (charity mugger) in the streets would have us dipping into our reserves. Most of us carry elements of the dark triad traits to varying degrees, even if we don’t care to admit it.
In thinking about this, I was reminded of the saying to never meet your heroes. Generally, that will be because they will not match up to your imagined perceptions of them and the pedestal you have put them on will be kicked away and never able to return unless they are a rare exception who meets or exceeds your expectations, such as when I met Frida from ABBA back in my flying days.
I was thinking about how certain figures have become almost sacred in our minds and cultures, regardless of the reality of the person. Gandhi was not always the saintly guru he is often portrayed as, although he undoubtedly had great wisdom. Mother Theresa had a dark side, which has been written about only by those who dare challenge the sanctity of her image. They both had people managing their public personas and making sure that the world saw only the parts they wanted us to see. You can not doubt how powerful their personas became because of that. We don’t see them as real people now, we see them as luminaries.
I’ve met enough of my heroes to know that in most cases you will probably be disappointed when the reality does not match the fantasy. I suspect many correspondence-only relationships have met a similar fate when confronted with the reality of a person. It would take a very determined imagination to continue with the fantasy and our minds are excellent at creating fantasies by filling in the gaps with what we want to see.
On a first date, we do not generally show up as our full authentic selves. If I behaved with my husband then as I do now, I am not sure how long we would have dated. Reality always sets in and we always put our best face forward in those situations. This is why no one voluntarily farts loudly on a first date (unless social conventions have shifted dramatically without my knowledge), but by 12 months into the relationship, you have probably already accustomed yourself to your partner’s gaseous eruptions, and they to yours.
We do this during job interviews too. We curate and craft what we think they want to see in order to land the role and get paid. Once we’re in and settled somewhat, we may start to let our guard down. I don’t know whether or not you interact with colleagues or clients daily but if you do, can you honestly say that you are your true self always? I can’t even do that with my parents. They get to see a version of me that they’re comfortable with but sometimes natural traits slip out, like the time I forgot my mum was in the car with me and someone cut me up. She didn’t know that I knew THAT word.
I think we’re all a little machiavellian sometimes when it suits us to be so. Many people aren’t even themselves in their own relationships, let alone as entrepreneurs or public figures. We try to live up to archetypes, expectations, norms and values we may have chosen for ourselves but more likely have been indoctrinated, imposed and imprisoned within.
It’s only through self-examination, questioning and considering ourselves that we can even hope to come to know if the roles and expectations placed upon us are what we truly want. If they are not, then a long journey of discovery begins.
Are you the same person you were last week? Last month? Last year? A decade ago? We have this sense of continuity in who we are but if you have learned anything new since yesterday or done something differently, or had a new experience, then you are not quite the same person. Just as you can’t step into the same river twice. It may be the same river but it is not the same water and it’s not the same person stepping into the water. Our personality is who we are right now and it is not fixed.
This is one of the reasons I dislike personality tests. The other reason is that most of them are bunk pseudoscience and have no more value than a Buzzfeed quiz telling you which Avengers character you’re most like. It’s Thor, in case you were wondering. I often hear professional people talking about their Myers-Briggs personality profile or their enneagram and they don’t even realise it’s completely unscientific. Pseudoscience is a big pet hate of mine.
People buy into these tests and think it defines them. Even the more scientific tests can only tell you who you are right now. They may offer some useful insights but we are all much more adaptable and changeable than we know. Defining yourself by a personality test is going to limit you from who you can be and keep you within the boundaries of who you are at the time. I’ve seen this most commonly with the widely debunked Kolb learning styles. People insist they are visual learners and therefore can not possibly listen to an audiobook. It’s ridiculous and it’s disempowering yourself. There are people who still stand by this bunkum even though it has been discredited, just because it feels right to them.
Do you even know who you are to be able to say whether you are being authentic or not? I’m not saying you should take carte blanche to create a persona that has nothing to do with who you are but for any of us who have done any kind of personal or professional development, we have already decided to work on crafting ourselves, hopefully, to improve ourselves, for our own benefit and for others.
I never used to like myself that much. I saw myself as fat, lazy, unmotivated, unambitious, unattractive, coasting through life hoping that people would like me and that maybe one day I’d get lucky and something good would happen to me. Sounds like fun, no? I’m still overweight but I no longer hate myself for it and I’m trying to change that. The rest has changed. I changed it. I changed myself. Improved me. I am not the same person I was. I invested heavily in myself with time, money and energy to become a better me, and I continue to do so.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has paid dividends in my life. I’m much happier. I have a healthy and loving relationship. I work hard in my job and business. I’m well respected as a podcaster, speaker, coach and writer and I have a level of happiness in my life that I could hardly have imagined even just 10 years ago when I first moved to Spain.
For me, it makes sense that if I want to have a bigger and more charismatic presence in life and business, I have to have a crafted persona that is based on me but a bit larger than life. A persona that has some of the same flaws as me but also is a carefully curated better version of me. (Note that I do not say perfect.)
I’m giving myself a more ideal version of myself to show up as. It is still me but it’s the public me. I’m not pretending to be someone I am not, just turning up the dials on positive aspects of myself and turning down the dials on less desirable traits. A good example of this is that I am naturally shy and introverted but over time I have made myself more ambivert and even extrovert at times because it has suited my goals and my public persona to do so. It could be argued that this is inauthentic but playing to my authentic traits would leave me worse off.
Faking it to be someone far removed from who you truly are is going to be challenging at best, requiring tremendous acting chops and a good memory. It will feel wrong and those who do know you are likely to call you out on it. Rightly so. The goal is not to be a con artist but to manage your persona and profile for public consumption.
Just as you’d hopefully dress up and scrub up for a dinner in a fancy restaurant, it’s still you in the fancy clothes and buffed-up face but it’s the version of you that best serves the environment and your public image at the time. If you really know your style, you make the look your own and distinguish yourself.
Without a doubt, this kind of image management can be used to cover up a multitude of sins. Often, nefarious figures have crafted the persona of philanthropists to cover up their true personalities. Many place themselves into positions of trust and power with the exact intention of abusing that position.
The tools of influence are amoral, neither good nor bad. The only morality of them is that of the person using them. In knowing them, you may at least learn to look past the surface images of people and recognise that we are all flawed human beings who are doing our best. Yes, that even includes Frida from ABBA.
So, what do you think? Are you an authenticity at all costs, warts and all, bare it all to the world kind of a person or are you willing to consider that for the sake of your public and podcast persona, a little curation and crafting could be an excellent thing?
I’d say, if you want to be a distinct personality in your industry, it’s essential to know who you are, curate your persona based on that and manage carefully what you project into the world. But that’s me…
Here’s one of my favourite videos to show inauthenticity in action. Enjoy.
This was a somewhat longer article than I planned to write but it’s been fun. Apologies to anyone who was expecting it on Friday. I am changing the publication day to Mondays for several reasons: 1. I have a new job working with Kevin Chemidlin and the amazing team at Grow The Show. This means that I have less available time for writing and can not maintain the schedule I was on. 2. I’m rebranding and relaunching my podcast.
I’ve decided to take some time away from publishing the show. I want to dedicate time and energy to my new role and I want to be fully ready and prepared for the relaunch. Podfluence will now launch after the summer to give me the space and preparation time I need to do things the right way and not pile too much pressure on myself. In the meantime, I am still accepting guest applications and will continue editing shows in preparation for the re-launch. For this week, you can enjoy the very last episode of Speaking Influence where I got to have a terrific conversation about thought leadership with Trevor Merriden.
Trevor Merriden | Thought leadership for personal brand business owners
What is thought leadership? Is it being a guru with all the answers? Is it being the leading voice and authority in…
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