Wednesday, September 27, 2017

There Can Be Only One: Authenticity as Trope or Reality

We live long lives with many new experiences, yet popular culture tells us to be the same. Be true to yourself, they say. Managers have long careers with many roles, yet researchers and self-helpers tell them to be the same. Be the authentic you, they say. It is said so many times that it must be true. Except that things said too many times by too many people need to be researched, because they might be wrong and in consequential ways.

A new article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Brianna Barker Caza, Sherry Moss, and Heather Vough looks at the connection between being authentic and being the same, and it finds that what everyone says is not quite true. They asked whether consistency (being the same) is the same as authenticity (being one’s true self) and found that the answer is no. The problem with saying that authenticity demands consistency is that one’s true self is not a unified whole. We can think multiple thoughts, have multiple beliefs, and take on multiple roles, and each of these can be fully ours even though they are not consistent with each other. People are smart enough that they don’t have to be only one thing, and they are flexible enough that they don’t force themselves to be only one.

To do the research, the authors followed the careers of people who had multiple jobs at once and in some cases also changed these jobs over time. This is a strict test of authenticity because we understand and accept that people can be different at work and privately – like the quiet student who is a very outgoing and improvisational musician. Not surprisingly, the demands of authenticity were a burden for these people with plural careers. They knew that they were asked to be authentic, and that this implied being the same always, but they also felt these demands to be unnatural. Being authentic according to others was the same as being inauthentic according to themselves. So who wins this battle?

There can be no winner, but the subjects of this study usually found a truce that worked well for them. On the one hand, they had to draw lines between who they were and who they presented themselves as, but these lines did not involve acting – they involved presenting the part of themselves that belonged to the specific job they were doing at the time. Sometimes they could even present the more complete self, but they were careful about when. On the other hand, they incorporated the multiple roles and identities that belonged to them as part of themselves, and they saw this incorporation as authentic and valuable. “There can be only one” was a demand they did not have to follow because they could shape their careers and benefit (and let others benefit) from the learning and flexibility that these multiple identities gave them.

Think about the people around you. Some may seem unusual because they simply do too many things, or too different things, and we sometimes suspect that some of it is inauthentic – they act for some benefit. But you could easily be wrong, and you could underestimate their commitment to each activity and the value they add to it.