Authenticity is one of my values, but what it means to be authentic and live an authentic life?
Authenticity is one of my personal values.
I don’t want to pretend to be someone I am not. I want to live by my values and be who I am. I don’t want to be surrounded by inauthentic people, either.
But what does it mean to be authentic?
Philosophers and psychologists have been arguing about what authenticity for a long time. Let’s look at it in more detail.
What does it mean to be authentic?
First, we will turn to existentialism for some of our answers.
Related to this, please read Existential Coaching: what is it?
Existential thinkers like Kierkegaard and Sartre wrote extensively about authenticity and what it meant to be authentic. For them, authenticity meant living the life we were meant to live, living it according to our values and purpose, not the values of someone else.
Existentialists believe we build our essence and who we are through our actions and decisions. We are free to live the life we want, but this should be lived according to our values and purpose, or it risks not being authentic. We should live our lives according to our values and norms, not those imposed on us by society or others.
Sartre introduced the concept of living in “bad faith” to signify people who were not living according to their values. Living in bad faith means not being authentic.
For existentialists, this is one of the biggest sins a human being can do.
If we follow their argument logically, we should first know ourselves (or all our different selves, according to multiplicity theory), who we are, and our values and purpose well in order to be really authentic. You cannot be guided by your values if you don’t know what they are.
Maslow also wrote about authenticity in his book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. As was to be expected, he linked it to self-actualisation in the sense that more self-actualised people tend to be more authentic, as they understand themselves better and don’t need affirmation or commands from others.
For Maslow, authentic people are capable of listening to their inner voices about who they really are and what their natural desires and characteristics are, not the ones imposed by others. Authentic people know what they want and know equally clearly what they don’t want.
Inauthentic people are just the opposite:
“Other people, in contrast, seem to be empty, out of touch with their own inner signals. They eat, defecate, and go to sleep by the clock’s cues, rather than by the cues of their own bodies. They use external criteria for everything from choosing their food (“it’s good for you”) and clothing (“it’s in style”) to questions about values and ethics (“my daddy told me to”).Abraham Maslow, in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature
And you, are you guiding your ethical decisions on what your daddy told you?
In the 50s and 60s, leaders had to be tough, charismatic, and commanding, but in the 70s and 80s, this started to change, and softer skills and traits started to be valued. There suddenly was a preference for a more humane and humanistic leader who would understand the needs of their team members to motivate them.
This gave then place to transformational leadership, servant leadership and wise leadership, which are all interesting concepts with valuable aspects (personally, I have a soft spot for wise leadership). The growing interest in authentic leadership should be understood in this context.
The thinking goes like this: people like people who are authentic, not fake, and we human beings can notice when someone is not being authentic, even if this noticing is often done unconsciously, so people who are authentic and show themselves as they really are, will engage and motivate better their team members.
It is a sound logic. As I already mentioned, authenticity is one of my personal values, so I cannot but agree with this approach.
But it is not as easy as it sounds. What does it mean to be an authentic leader? And can a leader always be authentic? In all situations?
If we understand authenticity in the existential sense, as a leader acting in alignment with their values, then that is possible, even if sometimes those values could contradict each other depending on the situation (nobody said it was easy to be authentic!). On the other hand, if we understand authenticity as always being natural, honest, and frank and showing oneself transparently as they are in every situation, this could create some difficulties in some situations.
After all, a leader’s best choice in certain situations is to hide some part of the truth or tell a white lie to their team members, clients or partners.
Would a leader doing this be truly authentic? In the existential sense, certainly; in the other one, I’m not so sure.
Authenticity in a world of deepfakes and beauty filters
If you look at the state of the world today, you would be forgiven for thinking we are living in probably the most inauthentic times in history.
And perhaps you would be right.
After all, we are living in a world where people can turn other people into porn stars by just tapping into an app. Technology allows deepfakes that look increasingly verisimilar; it is almost impossible to detect some of them.
We also live in a world where millions show how they live to their followers, but they aren’t showing all of it, only their most glamorous bites. People use filters to improve their pictures or carefully set up the elements of a picture to make it seem better than it really is. Everybody seems to be living a grand life, eating in Michelin-starred restaurants and visiting white-sanded tropical beaches, but then again, we all know their mundane everyday life isn’t always like this.
We seem to be living in a world of pretending to be someone we are not or where other people can make us look like someone we are not.
It does look like we might be living in the more inauthentic times in history.
And still, I believe we have the potential to be more authentic than ever. There are more and more tools and help out there to help each of us navigate this challenging world, understand who we are, and live the life we are meant to live and want to live.
Know thyself, and live an authentic life
This is what it means to live an authentic life. Many people seem to be lost in a materialistic and ultimately nihilistic way of life made up of illusions and pretending, but many others are awakening and realising this is not the life they want to live.
Meditate, start a coaching process, see a psychologist, ask for feedback from your friends or colleagues, do exercises to understand your purpose in life, identify your values… In a nutshell, know and understand yourself better, and once you do, stick to being who you really are.
That’s what it means to be authentic, nothing more, nothing less. Life is nothing but a journey to discover who you are and live the life you are meant to live authentically. Nothing more, nothing less.