Brené Brown’s books, Daring Greatly and Rising Strong came strongly recommended by good friends. Had I known at the time that she was a bit of a TEDTalk star, I might not have read them. There is something about professional inspirational speakers who always seem to be constantly in an act that makes them a little off-putting to me. But these books were about an honesty with oneself that was quite refreshing, and seem to reinforce a point that has been popping up in my life recently: that in order to live comfortably in our own skins, we have to get in touch with our feelings and not be afraid to show up to the world as we truly are. That, is the elusive, authenticity.
One wearer, different hats
What is it that we yearn for most about home after a long day at work? What is it that is so rewarding about the company of good friends? It’s that feeling of letting go of yourself and being able to relax, and not having to put on a face for anyone. Being professional and diplomatic takes effort, and there are those that might argue that the reason for this effort (and ensuing relief when we cross that boundary from professional to personal) is that in these situations, we are not being our “true self”.
If that were the case, employers would have much to fear about encouraging their employees to seek authenticity. Luckily for them, authencity isn’t just about removing all filters. We all play different roles in life – at any one point, I am simultaneously an employee, a mom, a wife, a daughter, a scientist, among other things. Each of these roles come with expectations and fit into a social context. Each of these roles is like a different piece of clothing. Being authentic is about finding the qualities that span all these roles, to get in touch with the wearer and who that person is. It is not about running around naked.
Every pre-med student is familar with the verbal reasoning section of the MCAT, a section in the admissions exam to North American medical schools that consists of analyzing short excerpts on a variety of topics . One particular passage that has stayed with me is one about the origins of the word, integrity.
The story takes us back to ancient Rome, when soldiers would strike their hands across their armoured chest and shout, “Integritas” to show their inspecting officer that their armour is whole and ready. The integrity of the armour, especially at the breastplate, was crucial to defending each man in a fight. Over the years, the wholeness of character that “integrity” has come to define continues to serve as an armour of a different kind: it allows us to keep our bearing and sense of self against the challenges that life throws at us.
In Brown’s books, there is a focus on ridding our lives of shame. She points out that avoidance, which is a common way of coping, only amplifies shame. Seeking authenticity is largely a commitment to live with integrity: to be simultaneously aware of oneself and able to to live with oneself.
Think > Plan > Do!
The most difficult part about authenticity is seeing yourself as you are, not who you want to be. There are qualities we all aspire to and ideals we dream about. Yet, know what we want without knowing who we are right now is a bit like wanting to go camping without owning any equipment. Buying equipment may be a large investment and involves risk – god forbid, what happens if I find out I don’t like camping! – but it is the only way to know ourselves better. Looking at a destination on a map without knowing where we currently are makes the map quite useless.
Make the investment into knowing yourself deeply. It is may not be easy nor particularly enjoyable, but it is the first step in seeking authenticity. And, as my professional experience has taught me, don’t overthink. The process of science, as in design, as with anything creative (which seeking authenticity is), is iterative. Think, plan, do! Then, assess and repeat! I would be happy to spend my life doing this.