Recently, authenticity has become a buzz word. Everywhere you turn, people are being encouraged, even challenged to be “real,” to be authentic. And rightly so. It is utterly exhausting trying to live somebody else’s life. The freedom to be yourself without fear of judgement is without doubt, one of the best things you can do for your mental well being.
But what happens when that desire to be authentic begins to sabotage your need for growth? When “I’m just being real” has quietly transformed from genuine authenticity to stubbornness and an unwillingness to make the necessary adjustments your environment is calling for?
To find that delicate balance between authenticity and growth, it is important to first of all truly understand what it means to be authentic. And, it is not what most people think it is.
But before I give you my own definition of authenticity, let me highlight two points.
First, authenticity does not stand alone. The concept itself simply cannot be defined without taking some form of context into consideration. If something is judged to be authentic, that means it has been compared with something else. There’s always context involved.
Take gold for example. Do you know that what is considered authentic gold differs from place to place? What some value and celebrate as real gold, others dismiss with a quick wave of hand. In the UK, 18 carat gold is considered premium. It’s the highest carat you will find in most jewellery stores here and the British will proudly wear 18 carat gold.
But in India, what they consider premium gold is 22 carats. To the British woman, her 18 carat wedding band is authentic; but to the Indian bride, it doesn’t match up to her higher standard. And then to take it one step further, in Dubai, they deal mainly in 24 carat gold! Can you see how the authenticity of gold and the value ascribed to it changes from context to context?
So when you say you’re being real, you took that definition of authenticity from somewhere. It didn’t just materialise. It’s rooted in an ideology.
Let me give an example. The strong African woman. This is a popular idea that we tend to talk about when the subject of authenticity comes up.
But did you know that probably two generations ago, the definition of the strong African woman was very different to what we have come to view it as today. Back then, to be a strong African woman meant regardless of the state of your marriage, regardless of how your husband treated you, you stayed in the marriage and kept your home together. To them, being strong meant overlooking abuse in whatever form and staying married at all costs.
In our more modern context to be strong is to stand up for yourself and reject abuse. Two generations ago, the predominant advice for the woman trapped in an abusive marriage would have been, “You are a strong woman, you can take it.” Today, it would be, “You a strong woman, you don’t have to take it.” Can you see how in a space of one or two generations, the context of authenticity has evolved?
An elderly woman from the older generation that observes a modern woman who is vowing to walk out of her marriage because her husband is physically abusing her would be flabbergasted. “I don’t understand why you would leave because of that,” she might say. “You need to stay for the sake of the children.”
She would look that modern woman in the eye and disapprove of that version of the strong black woman. “You are not being true to who you are,” she would say. Why? Because her version of authenticity was shaped by the context she grew up in.
Authenticity can only be defined in the light of a particular context. It is impossible for someone to say they are being “real” or authentic without giving due consideration to the context they are currently in.
The second point I want to highlight is this. When you say something is authentic, or real, you are also saying it has a comparably greater value than its fake or inauthentic version. An original Monet painting could probably be sold for millions of pounds compared to a good copy that may fetch a couple of hundred.
Anything that’s considered fake is valued considerably lower than the authentic version.
So, if you are being authentic, there must be value that is being delivered to you and to others as a result of that authenticity. The very definition of authenticity implies there that must be inherent value that can be transferred.
If that “authentic” behaviour is bringing little or no benefit to you or to other people, then it is more fake than real.
The problem with the popular idea of authenticity arises when people have an attitude, a behaviour, or a skill that is deemed valuable in one context, but then choose to retain that behaviour, hopping from context to context to context, without taking a moment to evaluate whether that behaviour is still delivering value in the new context.
Someone says, “Look, I’m a very blunt person. I always speak my mind!” Now that may very well work for her at the office where her line manager is irritated by people who beat about the bush. She may even get praised frequently for her forthrightness. Now, because it’s working for her and delivering value in one context, she takes on the identity of that behaviour and begins to demonstrate it everywhere she goes, as she moves from one context to another. She’ll say, “That’s who I am.” She believes that makes her “authentic.”
But if she happens to run into a friend going through a very dark time in her marriage, who simply needs empathy, encouragement, reassurance…what does she do? She gives her “candid” opinion about how messed up her friend’s life is. Without mincing words, she dumps all over someone who merely needs a kind word. She leaves her far worse off. Has she delivered value to her friend in that context? No, she hasn’t. That means, the version of “authenticity” she showed up with in that context was actually not authentic at all.
Based on those two points I’ve made, what is my own definition of authenticity?
To be authentic is to be true to the core values or beliefs or qualities of behaviours that serve you or the people in your life during each season of your life.
And a season could be as little as five minutes and as long as decades. To be truly authentic, you have to examine your current context and ask yourself, “What version of my authentic self will deliver the best value to me and to the people around me?” You cannot hold on to something that is no longer of service in the name of being “real.”
David in the bible is an example of someone who got this concept of authenticity right. He started off as a teenager who was charged with taking care of his father’s sheep in the wilderness.
While in the wilderness, he developed skills and qualities that helped in thrive in that context. He learnt to use whatever he found in his environment to overcome the threat of wild animals. He used stones, clubs, slingshots – makeshift weapons primarily, and he became so skilful that he was able to kill a lion and a bear all by himself.
Now, when the opportunity came for David to face Goliath, King Saul wanted him to fight with the full armour a soldier would wear. David tried it but he could barely walk. He didn’t know how to use it. In his current context, David was still a shepherd boy and what he knew to use when fighting an enemy were simple, makeshift weapons, nothing like the complicated arsenal Saul tried to make him use. So, he turned it down, picked up five stones from a nearby lake and killed Goliath by firing one of those stones from his slingshot.
Saul had tried to impose the identity of a soldier on David, but he was wise enough to reject it because he understood that what would bring the greatest value to himself and the whole of Israel were the skills he had picked up as a shepherd boy. With Saul’s armour, David would have looked the part, but he would have been a “fake” soldier. He knew nothing about fighting with a sword.
As soon as David killed Goliath, however, his context changed. Saul and the people were so impressed with him that he was immediately promoted from being a shepherd boy to a soldier. In his new context as a soldier, something quite interesting happens. David was immediately given a sword, shield, belt and other tools a soldier would need.
As a shepherd boy, David rejected those things. But in his new context, he accepted them with gratitude and began to develop himself in those new skills. He excelled in them and was soon promoted to the rank of Captain. Do you think David ever used his slingshot again? Maybe for leisure hunting. Certainly not as a soldier. Because his context had changed. He needed to upgrade his skills to whatever would deliver the best value in the new context of a soldier fighting in the king’s army.
David demonstrated what true authenticity is. He assessed his context and chose to display what would deliver value in that context. As a Shepherd boy, if he had belittled his slingshot and tried to “look the part” by fighting with Saul’s armour, he would have failed. When his season changed, if he had stubbornly held on to the slingshot and tried to use it as a soldier, he would have failed.
So, how to you remain authentic and true to yourself without jeopardising your growth?
I have five strategies for you.
1. Build a new you by merging the value from your past with the new value being offered in your future
When David became a soldier and his context changed, he didn’t completely get rid of everything he had learnt as a shepherd boy. The slingshot he got rid off because it no longer served his new purpose, but let’s imagine that he had build other wonderful skills and habits that could be transferred into his new season.
For example, his ability to write songs and psalms. Because he spent so much time alone with God in the wilderness, he had developed a close relationship with God through worship. That was certainly going to be useful in this new role, so he took it along with him. And that relationship helped him several times when he faced challenges.
When you’re changing seasons or contexts, you don’t need to completely let go of who you are, just what no longer serves you. Neither do you need to completely absorb the ways things are done in the new context, again, only take on what will deliver value. So, catalogue the things of value from your past and hold on to them, and the valuable things in the new context and take deliberate steps to gain those skills or qualities.
2. Actively seek and act on feedback. But only selectively.
Approach the people that know you well and get feedback about how you can improve. But be selective in applying that feedback. Why? There’s a saying that goes, “to a carpenter, everything looks like a hammer.” Meaning, in most cases people will assess your weaknesses through the lenses of their own strength. To an extrovert, an introvert’s area of improvement will always be “get out more.”
Even if the introvert has made significant changes and has reached a compromise that is now serving them well, if the extrovert chooses to judge them in comparison to their own extroverted personality, that person will always fall short in their eyes. The extrovert will probably not be fully satisfied until the introvert is just as outgoing as they are.
So, don’t immediately run with the feedback you’re given. Sit down and thoughtfully interpret it in your own context. After all, you want to grow, but you don’t want to lose yourself completely in the process.
3. Get rid of labels
Most, if not all of us, do it. I’m an engineer. I’m a quiet person. And so on. When you label yourself with a skill, or behaviour – good or bad – it becomes difficult to ditch it when a new context demands it. It becomes such a part of your identity and change becomes difficult. The slingshot was the skill needed while shepherding. It wasn’t his identity. Once the season changed, David was willing to drop it for the best skill required in the new context level.
4. Don’t defend a trivial position at the risk of significant damage
So someone says, I’m Nigerian and I love Eba with Egusi soup, so I have to pack it for lunch every day. But here’s the challenge, you live in England and you’re surrounded by people who are not used to the strong spiciness and the smell of your Eba with Egusi soup. You love it but it makes them gag. But you say, “I’m being authentic, I’m Nigerian and that’s the kind of food we eat.”
Yes, but at what cost? Why offend someone unnecessarily? Particularly when there are options. Could you perhaps, have your Eba with Egusi soup for dinner at home? Or, find a restaurant near work where you can have it for lunch? Some positions are just not worth defending in the name of authenticity if the benefit it brings to you is trivial and the discomfort it brings to others is significant.
5. Let your deepest values be your ultimate guide
Sometimes, your new context will demand a change from you that contradicts your deepest values. Joseph was a slave in Portiphar’s home. Technically, when Portiphar’s wife commanded him to sleep with her, he should have obeyed. That was his context. He was a slave. But Joseph refused, because he valued the fear of God higher than obedience to his master’s wife. And he suffered grave consequences as a result.
Not every change that will be required of you will be good. Some will be completely poisonous. You have to be courageous enough to say “no” and face the consequences, knowing that God will always show up to back you up. He will reward you with much more than you lost when you chose not to compromise.
And more importantly, he will reward you with much more than the compromise was promising. Joseph eventually became prime minister – the highest position of honour that Portiphar’s wife could never have given him.