Authenticity and Risk

I've been thinking a lot about "truth" lately. It started with the article I wrote and the session I did at the CalSAE conference in April. But a couple of weeks ago, inspired by Maddie's post, I challenged everyone: what would YOU do differently if your work and your world demanded real authenticity?

First, did anyone have an answer to that question? If so, leave me a comment. In the meantime, let's talk about authenticity.

It seems like a simple issue–just be yourself, right? Not exactly. I look at my day and all the people I interact with, from coworkers who report to me, to my boss, to the person at the dry cleaners, to my friends, to my kids, to my Mom, etc. If you collected all those interactions and placed them next to each other, you'd see a lot of different "people" in me. That was part of Maddie's original point in her blog post–that these multiple identities are becoming transparent with the help of social media.

And it's obviously okay to have multiple ways of interacting. We call these roles, and playing roles is not in and of itself inauthentic. It's okay for me to be one way around my kids and another way around my office colleagues (and both groups are grateful!).

Within each role, however, there is the opportunity to deny your true self, and it scares me how often we choose to do just that. We choose the convenience of the role over the expression of our selves. Frequently we are not even aware we are doing it. The role is safe and predictable, so we play it, and we choose to ignore the impact it has on us when we end up being less than our selves.

There is a way out of this trap, but it involves risk. In order to push the role boundaries, you have to risk. In order to truly be yourself, you have to put yourself out there, risking the reactions from those around you. The reward of actually being yourself, of course, is tremendous for both you and those around you. So In my mind, the risk is worth it.

Risk is one of those concepts like conflict–we're scared of it and often don't like it and want to mitigate it and control it, but, in fact, risk and conflict drive life! There is no creativity or growth or development without either of them. So embrace it, and be yourself.


  1. 02.06.2009 at 12:27 pm

    Your blog today and your thought provoking article cited in it, raise some important questions about truth telling and authenticity.
    It is risky to shed the comfortable roles we have come to play. It requires us to stretch and grow as people. The potential rewards of individual authenticity though could be life changing and affirming.
    In Hildy Gottlieb’s book, The Pollyanna Principles, the first principle is “We accomplish what we hold ourselves accountable for.”
    Creating organizational cultures where truth is more valued and supported, as you stated in your article, does start with accountability for making that vision a reality.
    I would love to see more discussion here about how to inspire that change!

  2. David Notter
    03.06.2009 at 7:00 am

    Hi Jame,
    I doubt you have a lot of time for extra reading, but the philosopher Charles Taylor has written good books on both ‘the self’ (Sources of the The Self) and ‘authenticity'(‘The Ethics of Authenticity), both published by Harvard University Press. Lionel Trilling has also written a famous book on authenticity (Sincerity and Authenticity)
    From a purely academic point of view, the concept of ‘the self’ is rather problematic, especially in my field (sociology). To give just one example, postmodernists such as Jamieson argue that ‘the conception of a unique self and private identity is a thing of the past’. While I myself would not go that far, it is a rather tricky issue (e.g. are ‘roles’ really the same as multiple identities, and are the latter consistent with the notion of a coherent self?), and I do think it is at least necessary to keep in mind that ‘the self’ as we know it and experience it is historically and socially constructed, and in many ways culturally specific. Taylor’s ‘Sources of the Self’ is really good at elucidating how it came about historically.
    And since the title of your entry is ‘Authenticity and Risk’, I should also add that there is an excellent book on Risk by U. Beck with the title ‘Risk Society’. Not quite the kind of risk you are talking about, but a good read. Taylor is also really good. Again, I don’t if you have the time for reading stuff outside your field, but maybe as something to take on vacation someday…if you are interested.