Living an authentic life—being true to ourselves in our personal and professional arenas—is an act of courage. It asks us to reveal who we are to those who may judge us for it. It asks us to know who we are and to embrace that person. It requires pushing back against forces that are telling us to conform. It can be a risk to our jobs and relationships.
And yet, it is one of the most freeing things we can do for ourselves—and for those around us. So, why is it so hard? How can we best be true to ourselves?
There are two major forces that make this road less traveled so difficult: One is internal, and the other is external. The internal force is the fact that many people struggle with having a vision for who they are and want to become—the gift waiting to be unwrapped. The external force is other people’s expectations—the reins held by others who seek to steer us in directions for their benefit, not ours.
Let’s explore each in more detail.
THE UNWRAPPED GIFT
To begin to live an authentic life, you must know who you are on various levels: soul, heart, mind and body. The work begins deep inside of us, where “knowing” entails discovery. Some answers are readily apparent; others are not. The ones that are not may require anything from a simple inward glance directed in a new way to a wrenching process of removing layers of doubt, confusion and hurt.
In any case, this process of declaring who we are is akin to unwrapping a gift. The real you is already there, but becoming authentic is a two-step process:
- Unveiling yourself to the people around you
The process of self-discovery is a lifelong journey that is about understanding your psychology, what drives you and your imagination. Self-discovery is hard enough, but it’s in the unveiling where most of us falter—seeing through the consistency between who we are and what we believe and how we act. Seeing this through is what authenticity is all about. It’s the process of making choices about how you will be your authentic self.
Is the work to do this worth it? It sure is! Let’s see how this plays out at work.
Hiding who you are is tiring. It will limit what you are able to do in your job and how satisfied and content you are. The reverse—when you choose to bring your full authentic self to work—opens up a world of possibilities.
So, where do you start? Begin by asking yourself some key questions about your values, personality and cultural identity. Then commit to a discovery process with different techniques to help you find your answers.
Consider these attributes:
- Values. What are your values? What are the uncompromising ideals that you hope to live up to? For each of us, what we base our values on differs. It can be philosophy, spirituality, politics, a personal code of ethics and more. Whatever the case, be clear about what these values are and where they come from. A good way to think about your fundamental values is to ask yourself, what are those situations where you would say, in Martin Luther’s words, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”?
- Personality. What is your personality? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Creative or analytical? Serious or lighthearted? Or are you a mixture? This acknowledgment will help you seek out those workplaces most congruent with your personality, which is good and healthy.
- Culture. Who are you in terms of your cultural identity? What shaped you? Did you grow up in a communal, emotive environment, or was it stoic and individualistic? Was time management highly regulated, or did things go with the flow more often? Was it industrious or more free-spirited? The better the workplace matches what shaped you and what you feel comfortable with, the freer you will be to show your authentic self.
These are all deep, not always easy-to-answer questions. Some of us may know the answers right away. Others may never have given them much consideration. Here are some ways to discover the answers:
- Introspection. Meditation is a great way for many people to learn about themselves. You may choose to sit still and listen. Or you may prefer kinetic meditation—movement that leads to an internal understanding. This can come through music, dance, exercise, time spent outdoors and elsewhere.
- Diverse reading. Reading works by all types of people in a range of platforms, whether story- or data-driven, opens your mind to new insights. Reading also has been shown to build empathy, as you learn about and come to understand those who are different from you.
- Interactions. Self-discovery can be most effective when you interact with your friends and family. You learn by comparing and contrasting, by seeing what works and what doesn’t. Practice is essential to your understanding.
- Feedback. Are you perceived as authentic? When you look at intent versus impact, there may be a gap. Sometimes you find out you are being insensitive or your ego got in the way—not because you meant to, but because you were just off. If you are not showing up the way you intend, you must recalibrate. Receiving and accepting feedback is likely the hardest part of self-discovery. You may need to remind yourself, “If I am going to be authentic, I have to be accepting of the feedback.” My colleague Peggy Hazard, who is a senior partner at Korn Ferry, elaborates: “One has to be humble enough to ask for feedback—‘How am I doing? How do I come across? Where is it that I could be doing better? Here is where my intent was; did I achieve that?’ And that requires the humility to expose ourselves, ask a question and then be open to whatever comes back in, to not be defensive and say: ‘Ah, OK. I get it, there’s the gap. I now have awareness of where that is. Here’s some corrective action.’”
What’s the payoff of being authentic? People will want to work with you. They will seek you out for help. They will anticipate that they will benefit from the interaction in terms of thoughtful analysis and good vibes.
THE REINS IN THE HANDS OF OTHERS
Of course, there is risk in being your true self. When you reveal yourself to others, and the more different you are to them, the chances of being misunderstood are amplified. We must be realistic about this risk and take the necessary steps to manage it as part of being able to live more freely.
This is particularly relevant in the workplace, because many corporations demand their employees do things in the same way. Although this is understandable—it can be seen as the glue that helps with coordinated action within the organization—it is one of the greatest contributors to organizations not being as inclusive as they like to proclaim they are.
Here is where authenticity of individuals in the workplace requires the intentionality of both the individuals and the organization. Individuals need to make decisions to be true to themselves in small and large ways based on what they have determined their values, personality and cultural identity are. But when performance ratings and jobs—and, therefore, livelihoods—are on the line, the constraints to fully being authentic are understandable.
This is why organizations need to nurture the inclusive cultures they say they want and value. When I was chief diversity officer at Hewitt, I sought to create environments that inspired people to live their lives most authentically. As I did this, I discovered something: Although we cannot be our full authentic selves at every minute in the workplace—we still have to fit in up to a point—corporations should also be adapting. We cannot leverage people’s differences if we refuse to acknowledge them.
No one benefits from a diverse workforce when different ways of being and acting are frowned upon. The burden often falls on the minority in the group—the extrovert among the introverts, the Latino among non-Latinos, the one with disabilities among those without them—to help the majority understand. Organizations need to look in the mirror and see how much of an impact they have on their people being able to bring their whole selves to work.
Ultimately, however, your authenticity cannot depend on the choices of others. Being authentic means not allowing yourself to be reined in by the expectations of others, and here the earlier advice to get feedback must be modulated. Hazard explains the key choice we face of what to do with the feedback: “To what degree do you want to make the changes?” she asks. “This is a very personal decision. You may draw the line at certain aspects that are central to your identity but be OK with others.”
This means that as you seek to create a space to be yourself in the organization, if you find it becomes futile or too compromising to who you are, it is appropriate and healthy for you to ask and answer the question, “Is this job or relationship congruent with my values and who I want to be?” It may be time to shed it, so you can be your true self.
Being authentic can be one of the hardest things to do and one of the most freeing. Freedom does not come cheap, even when you are clear about who you are and where you want to go.
We have so many choices to make about how we spend our time, money and energy—and when we are congruent between who we are and what we believe, it’s liberating because the way forward becomes so much clearer. We are living our lives as we intend, and this unleashes exponential energy.
Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse who wrote the book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, tells of how she asks her patients on their deathbeds about their greatest regrets. Their No. 1 regret? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
The best time to live freely is now. So on your last breath, you can say, “No regrets!”