Culture Guru: Be Authentic. Also Culture Guru: But Not Like That.


Have you ever looked in the mirror and been surprised that the person staring back at you was so much OLDER than you feel inside?

That cognitive dissonance could be the result of a poorly defined self-image, but more often that not it’s because our core being doesn’t really age. Even as time passes and life presents new challenges and opportunities, who we are at our core remains unchanged, timeless. I call this the Authentic Self.

The term authenticity is overused and hackneyed, yet it has always been and continues to be the bedrock of my ethos. My work as a writer reflects this, as well as my erstwhile avocation as a teacher of mindfulness, my work as a branding and marketing consultant, and my present-day improv and live storytelling performances. To me, a life that is not lived authentically—meaning, aligned with one’s core values—is a life not worth living. But how does that sentiment translate into marketing and branding where the term has become perennial?

Curious about how others approach thing, I attended a presentation by a Personal Branding Expert™ a few years ago that promised to explore this question. They insisted on authenticity in our social presentation, our digital presence, and just about anywhere else.

“Be genuinely you,” was the advice offered, along with tips for how to be more authentically authentic.

After the presentation, I approached the presenter and told him my authenticity seemed to be a bit much for some people and I was struggling to figure out how to both “be authentic” and be connected. He asked for some examples.

I thought for a moment about my dating life and responded. “I’m often told I’m intimidating.”

“Well,” he replied, “you’re tall. Taller than average. You should probably wear flat shoes.”

“I wear what’s comfortable,” I replied, perched atop my not-so-tall 2-inch-heeled boots.

“Fair enough,” he continued. “You’re also very direct in your communication style. That’s intimidating to many people, especially on the West Coast.”

I said nothing, biting my too-direct native East-Coast tongue, waiting for what else he might have to say.

“And your voice is low,” he said. “Most people prefer women with high voices. Maybe you should try upflecting.”

I responded with a full-throated, warm contralto chuckle, acknowledging the irony of his advice and went to fetch another glass of rosé.

Essentially, the Personal Branding Expert™ told me to change who, how, and what I am in order to be more palatable and therefor more successful in business and dating. But palatability is not authenticity, and while I’m all for making adjustments and learning new skills to improve communication, you can’t say “be authentic” in one breath followed by “not like that” in the next and be serious.

image of colorful toy on black bkgd with words "be authentic"

Authenticity has become a shopworn expression—almost devoid of meaning—thanks to the contemporary, digitally-forward influencer-crazed culture of our times.

How many other women have been told to play small to be acceptable?

How many have been encouraged to shine… but not too brightly?

Conversely, how many of us are encouraged to “kick ass” but not if doing so makes you more visible than others. What about the football player who is a fan favorite until they take a knee, using their platform to protest systemic social injustice?

In the Season 3 opener of Black Mirror (Nosedive, S3E1) —we’re shown a fictionalized take on an almost pathological inauthenticity. In it, a slightly futuristic world is a society of placid, bland agreeableness. The price for being authentic (as in expressing any form of “negative” emotion) is a depressed or devalued social standing. The protagonist finds herself unable to rent a car, purchase a flight, or secure a lease on a home due to her sub-optimal social ranking. As our heroine rushes to improve her social standing she faces numerous challenges and what I refer to as toxic or oppressive positivity. The more authentic she becomes, the more persecuted she is.

I won’t reveal the ending, but let’s just say the episode is best categorized as a chilling cautionary tale. Moreover, although it was written as speculative fiction, recent news stories have spotlighted China’s burgeoning social credit system and the harm it has caused to unpalatable individuals.

   “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”― Jalal Ad-Din Rumi

As a storyteller, writer, and brand communications consultant, I know the value of developing a clear, articulate, authentic brand. One that’s informed by our intrinsic values rather than dictated by market fluctuations. Whether in our personal life or in business I believe the strongest brands, best performers, and most inspirational leaders are genuinely, truly authentic to themselves. We cannot be all things to all people, so why even try? And to insist others change their tone, dress, speech, or any other aspect of personality or identity is nothing if not oppressive.

Beyond the oppression factor, I would advocate instead that we adopt Rumi’s centuries-old advice to look beyond “right” and “wrong” as concepts, and instead meet in the middle, in a place that acknowledges and celebrates our differences and our uniqueness.

After all, life would be pretty dull if we all sounded like Morgan Freeman, (and tell me you didn’t just hear his voice in your head).

Now, that’s authenticity speaking.

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