Overvaluing authenticity

I enjoy the Design Matters podcast by Debbie Millman. I don’t listen to it enough, or all the time, but when I do, the conversations are often eye-opening. As was the latest conversation Mrs. Millman had with Seth Godin.

In it, Seth Godin explained why in his opinion, authenticity is overvalued. What he said made a lot of sense, so I would invite you to listen. What I took away from it is the following …

Being authentic is an idea that has gotten a lot of airplay in the past couple of years. As Debbie Millman said, “authenticity is the new strategy.” I actually misunderstood what she was trying to say when I first listened to the podcast this evening. I thought she said that authenticity is now what strategy was earlier. But she most likely meant that authenticity is a strategy for quite a few people. It is something you have to be now. It is, as Seth Godin stated, primarily an artefact of the times we live in. Social media imposes a framework, a way of being which is all about being real, keeping it real … for a certain value of real.

When authenticity becomes an excuse to be the worst possible version of yourself, because you are, after all, yourself and want to remain true to you, you are not doing anyone a favor, least of all yourself. Yet authenticity is often the excuse for doing anything without holding back and especially without caring for other people and their opinions. Being authentic in that sense also prevents you from making the effort to walk in someone else’s shoes and try to put yourself in their position to see your point of view.

Taking that to an extreme, the excuse of authenticity is occasionally used to completely ignore facts and reality. And of course everyone has the right to an opinion, as long as that opinion does not prevent others from having their opinion and from the facts. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in the Washington Post in his column in 1983: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Authenticity today is a call to action which is fully embedded in the current “me”-culture. Being authentic is putting yourself and your experience or your beliefs before all other beliefs and experiences. It is the ultimate focus on self before all else.

And just like Seth Godin and Debbie Millman, I believe that that is not the best possible way to be in the world right now. Rather than being centered on me, you could opt to center on “us”, whatever us for you is. To make it even more interesting, perhaps “us” should be a confrontation with someone you’d otherwise never speak to, because they are far outside of your circle of acquaintances, far outside your own echo chamber. The German weekly magazine “Die Zeit” co-organised the “Europe Talks” conversations where more than 17.000 people from all over Europe with quite different views talked to one another. For quite a few of the participants, the experience was eye-opening. Some came away changed … something they would never have believed possible before.

These people were not “authentic” in the sense the word is being used right now, they were not the ideal image of their own most self-aligned behaviour … rather, most of these people volunteered to listen and to share. As Stephen Covey would say “First seek to understand, then to be understood.”

We need to come to terms with the fact that there is no authentic self. There is no one me that is unchanging. There is a person evolving and growing, and most of that growth comes from learning from people with another point of view than you have. That idea of the “stable, unchanging me” should be replaced by the idea of the evolving me, not one authentic baseline that is set in rock, but rather a continuously evolving coastline, impacted by the many waves that visit its shores. Those waves are of course the people you meet … and ideally, those encounters shape you and make you more interesting, just like you shape the people you encounter.

So don’t seek to be authentic, but seek to experience and learn from as many people as possible, with as many points of view as possible. If you want to be relevant, the most relevant you will ever be is in learning from and sharing with others. And that requires an openness of mind. But with that openness comes a myriad of opportunities for growth.

And while you’re at it, take the time to write down what you think and believe today. It may have changed tomorrow, but it is amazing to be able to track your own evolution and growth. Journaling allows you to do just that. Good luck!