Just be yourself. But not really.

By Melanie Spring

Why being “Authentic” is bullshit

“Just be yourself.”

Sound familiar?

How often are we told that we just have to be ourselves? From the time we’re little kids meeting new friends to adults getting new jobs, we’re told “just be yourself.” What does that even mean?! What does it mean to just be yourself? Most people don’t even know who they are - so how can they be themselves?

Just be yourself. When do we start figuring that part out? We’re not animals with an innate sense of what to do the minute we’re born. We don’t have built-in barks or meows. We don’t come out of the womb walking like baby deer. We have to learn EVERYTHING. How to get milk from our mothers, how to feed ourselves, how to speak, how to put on clothing, how to tie our shoes, how to write, how to do math. So where’s the class on learning to be yourself? Did I miss it?

Our whole lives we’re told how special and unique we are. ‘As different as snowflakes.’ We’re told we can do anything we put our minds to. No one else is like us and we can do anything we want. Until we grow up and realize that there are lots of other people like us - only better. And that we really can’t do everything we want because we were only given a certain set of abilities. Special and unique gifts, but limited to those specific talents. (Right, David Rendall?)

Then we get into business and we’re told to just be ourselves again. “Be authentic.” And we do it! We show up in our favorite outfit, we do outstanding work that’s just a little more than we were asked, and we come up with a totally original idea that no one has ever thought of...

Until being authentic gets us into trouble. Until we’re told that our ideas aren’t good enough. Until we do something that’s against some unwritten rule of business. Until we cross a line no one told us was there. And we start hiding in the shadows and stop taking chances because we’re worried we’ll get fired. We’re worried we’ll get sent to the Principal’s (Boss’s) office. That’s when we put on our corporate clothes and just try to fit in, since the only other option is to quit, right?

Last Spring we were in the market for a personal assistant. I was having a tough time keeping up with client stuff and scheduling all of my meetings. Cheney Williams sent one of the most thoughtful applications we’d ever seen. She made an infomercial on why we should buy a “Cheney”. She told us all about how she would fit the job and why we would love her –Yes, please! Soon after we hired her, she said that she’d finally found a job that perfectly fit her personality - from the company to the position. She was finally able to use her skills AND her voice - something she had never been able to do before.


Wait… what did she just say?! Where did that come from? Why did this little phrase leave the mouth of one of my most valued colleagues? Sometimes it came out of her mouth as a joke but it seemed like there was some truth to it. Digging deeper, we found out she had never been able to “be herself” at a job. And when she showed any sign of authenticity, there were consequences. So, she stopped being herself.

Sitting in front of me was this incredible multifaceted human being who has a huge drive to accomplish any task in front of her. She graduated with honors from Georgetown. She keeps smiles on the faces of everyone around her. She has to be told to turn off her computer when she is on vacation. She pushes herself and everyone around her to move forward, to be better. She reminded me daily that I’m the Boss Lady and I can make the rules. HOW IN THE WORLD could this woman be told to be anything BUT herself?

Oh yeah. Because “authenticity” is just another buzzword.

Businesses talk about building authentic cultures. They talk about having authentic with their clients. They post authentic photos on Instagram. They even post authentic tweets. Except, in reality, most businesses create a staged idea of what authenticity looks like. They talk one way and walk another. (Yeah, you know the businesses I’m talking about.)

Most businesses care more about the hustle than the people. They care more about pleasing their investors or their board of directors. They care about their bottom line, while the humans on the front lines are being told to “be authentic”. And these humans know what the company means by that – if they were TRULY authentic, they’d be fired.

We’re told to be “authentic” –but only in small doses. We’re supposed to sit in our boxes and paint them different colors, but NEVER go outside the lines. We have to be careful what we tweet (are those views really your own? Disclaimers only mean so much). We have to choose our words wisely. Tattoos, piercings, clothing, swearing, political views, religious views - careful with that shit. You might offend someone. Live in that Ann Taylor suit and sensible heels, pretending you love to squeeze into straight-jacket-like Spanx because if you show people who we really are… oh dear. They want you to be proper, fit in, and stay in your lane. “You want a promotion, right?!”

Well, guess what? “Authenticity” is bullshit.

The true definition of authenticity isn’t just about being genuine. Authenticity is also defined by Dictionary.com as “relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.” Hold on… “Appropriate? Responsible?” What happened to authenticity meaning REAL? When we say we want people to be authentic, we really mean that we want them to fit into social norms.

The Harvard Business Review posted an article about how leaders can often come across as incompetent if they have a limited view of authenticity. As I read it, I thought of all the places I had worked where I wasn’t allowed to be myself and all the places I flourished when allowed to be the real Melanie.

I have to say that I honestly don’t think we need to teach leaders how to understand what authenticity means. We need to create environments where being genuine and real is celebrated. Where people aren’t afraid to be themselves. Where people are encouraged to come up with new ideas, to get outside the box, color outside the lines, and do more with the infinite possibilities rolling around in their brains. THAT is how we create incredibly innovative organizations (and don’t EVEN get me started on the word innovative).

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Rob Siltanen

When we set up incredible organizations - businesses, non-profits, social enterprises, start-ups - we invite incredible humans to join a club. Once we know who we are as a company, we can make sure we have the right culture and the best possible humans to join us in our own uniqueness. And when that happens, there’s a place for everyone. I once heard “There’s a shoe for every foot” in relation to dating and I have to say it fits perfectly into the world of business. We’re all a little crazy – we just have to match our crazy to something (or someone) else’s crazy. First, though, we have to know what our particular brand of crazy is - personally, professionally, and organizationally. We have to ‘be ourselves’.

But how?

First, we have to explain what “be yourself” means. Here’s a crash-course in how to figure out what that means to you.

HUMANS: Know Who You Are

  1. Write yourself a love note. 
    Open your notebook and start with your name. In your love note, write down every reason why you love you. What you love about your face, your hair, your body, your style. What you love about your skills, your talents, your drive, your work. What you love about the people in your life and all you do for them. Even if you don’t REALLY believe all of it, write it all down. Write what your friends and family would say (it’s easier to write about yourself when you’re using someone else’s words. And if you can’t think of anything, text a bunch of your friends and say “what do you love about me?” They’ll be all too happy to fill in the blanks.

  2. Grab some sticky-notes.
    Pull out a bunch of stickies and write down the highlights from #1. Write down all the things you want to believe about yourself. The things you are working toward. The things you want others to say about you. Then –here’s the ‘sticky’ part –hang them all over your house, especially on or near mirrors.

  3. Work on your purpose.
    Listen to the Adventures in Branding episode Rip Up Your Resume & Rewrite Your Life. Then download the Find Your Purpose worksheet and do it. Take some time to get to the heart of the matter and pull others in to help if you draw a blank or hit a wall.

  4. Set short- & long-term goals.
    Listen to the Adventures in Branding episode Set A Vision For Your Life. Then download the Write Your Vision worksheet and do it. Go deep, write EVERYTHING. Dream bigger and do the worksheet again. See what comes out. What you really want out of life might surprise you.

  5. Stand firm in who you are.
    Standing tall, standing firm, and owning your life is SUPER tough for most people. Nedra Davis had to go through the gauntlet to figure that out for herself. Listen to the Adventures in Branding episode Sometimes it’s not all about you and learn from Nedra how to put on your big-girl (or -boy) boots and rock your life, no matter the circumstances. It’s YOUR life. It’s up to YOU to rock it.

Next, we have to create work environments where “being yourself” is accepted and encouraged. To do this, business owners and leadership teams have to set the tone for what that looks like. Here’s a short list of questions to get you thinking. (As if your brain wasn’t full enough!)

BUSINESSES: Create Genuine Culture

  1. Understand your purpose.
    Go back to the very beginning of why your company was founded. Before the money, before the employees, before the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” showed up. What did you really want to do? And how does that affect the world? Now come back to the present - what has changed and what needs to change to make sure your company purpose is at the forefront?

  2. Define your core values.
    Get your team (or a diverse cross-section) in one room and ask them what you ALWAYS do and NEVER do as a company. What you ALWAYS say and what you NEVER say. Have them create a list of the things you want to be known for and then shave that list down to who your team is at its core. We even have a worksheet you can use with examples from other incredible companies.

  3. Rewrite the rules of success.
    Repeat after me: there is no rulebook for business. Outside of paying taxes and following the law, you get to (and have to) make the rules. Have you set up systems because someone said you had to have them? Or can you rewrite what success looks like? Are you grinding and pushing your people hard for the right reason? Are you working for the money or for the purpose? What really matters to you and how can you be sure that’s always front and center?

  4. Hire for culture first.
    Ok, everyone says this but few actually DO it. Look at your culture and look at your hiring process. Do they match each other? Do you follow the same old guidemap of resumes or boring cover letters and the “what’s your greatest weakness” question? What needs to change in order to find, hire, and keep the right people? Skills can be learned – you can teach them. But culture and personality has to fit from the get go. It has to be inherent.

  5. Celebrate your humans.
    Celebrating is something most business owners forget to do for their employees and DEFINITELY forget to do for themselves. What styles of celebration fit your culture? Public recognition or awards? Silly dress-up parties? Company field trips? Pizza? Find ways to celebrate your accomplishments as individuals and as a team.

EXTRA CREDIT: Hire Sisarina to help with all this fun.
We have this thing called the Define Your Brand workshop – It gets your whole team on the same page with your core values, purpose, and mission. It gives you the language and toolkit you need to make sure you know who you are. When you know who you are, you can show who you are. That’s when the right people walk through your doors - both clients AND employees. And making that happen for your business is OUR purpose.

Whatever you do, BE YOURSELF.You don’t need to keep up with the (Dow) Joneses of the world. Be yourself as a human AND as an organization – the rest will follow. And don’t forget to help those lovely humans be themselves - even if they don’t know what that means yet. Don’t be authentic – be real. Now, go rock it!

Melanie Spring
Chief Inspiration Officer
Read Melanie's bio

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